Six steps to a corporate sustainability culture

Sustainability doesn’t just happen on its own. Companies must lay the foundations and nurture it if they are serious about integrating environmental and social issues into business-as-usual.

1. Ensure people have a voice

Although we tend to think of companies as single entities, they are of course comprised of multiple people. A well-known paper by UK academics Emma Dewberry and Margarida Barros points out that individuals are the main drivers of businesses’ sustainability activities. If sustainability is going to advance, Dewberry and Barros say individuals’ value systems must be reflected in the organisation’s sustainability value system. In other words, to ensure buy-in, employees must have a voice and their authentic attitudes towards sustainability should be strongly reflected in their companies’ policy.

The importance of grassroots sustainability efforts to corporate sustainability success means that most companies’ first efforts tend to be small – getting rid of disposable coffee cups and making sure the paper recycling bins are easily accessible, for example. But small initiatives can rapidly grow as people realise they are not alone in caring about sustainability. Professor Niki Harré of the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland says that “starting with something small such as calling for bike racks to encourage people to cycle to work” can rapidly lead to tackling “the big issues that have an impact on core business practices”. (Also read the article Sustainability is a big deal – but it can be tackled in small ways.)

2. Let the outside in

It’s unlikely that people within a company have specialist knowledge or a proven track record in implementing sustainable change – otherwise they would likely already occupy sustainability roles at other firms. So, while it’s important to involve people across the organisation in defining a sustainability strategy (so that it accurately reflects their values), it can be valuable to bring in external expertise. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring expensive consultants (although depending on the scale of the ambition and firm, that could make sense). But inviting specialists to come and talk to employees and encouraging collaboration (both internally and externally with industry peers through industry associations, for example) is critical to getting good ideas circulating within the organisation. 

3. Develop a clear message

Interest in sustainability is most effective when it flows upwards from employees. But to become an integral part of corporate culture, companies need to codify their sustainability strategy and articulate it to employees (and other stakeholders, including suppliers) through clear communications. Writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Thijs Geradts and Nancy Bocken say that managers must explain how sustainability-oriented innovation supports strategy and is embedded in day-to-day operations. The authors spoke to numerous employees at Unilever and cite the consumer goods company’s sustainability plan – which aims to “increase Unilever’s positive social impact while strengthening its competitive position” – as an exemplar that helps to motivate employees to achieve its goals.

4. Measure progress 

Corporates might have good intentions regarding sustainability and have articulated a crystal clear strategy internally and externally. But unless they set specific goals and find transparent ways to measure progress, any plan is unlikely to deliver on its promise. While culture is intangible, companies need to find suitable metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate their improvements (or otherwise) and generate momentum towards sustainability. For companies embarking on a new sustainability plan, the process of selecting suitable benchmarks may involve some trial and error. But there are general principles that can be applied.

Dutch journalist and speaker Beat Stauffer developed the following list for water and sanitation projects but they hold true for any company implementing change (sustainable or otherwise). Indicators should be simple, easily measured, understood and applied; there should be as few as necessary; existing information should be used wherever possible to minimise costs and ensure familiarity; indicators must relate to the specific situation they are providing information about; (most obviously) they need to be able to detect change; and finally, they should be comparable (perhaps with industry peers), repeatable and defensible between sites and times.

5. Put a strong change management system in place.

Any meaningful commitment to sustainability is going to require considerable organisational and business practice change. Swiss and Italian academics Gökan May and Stahl Bojan analysed six companies from the Lombardia region in Italy. They concluded that companies need solid change management practices if they are going to create competitive advantages through sustainability, and found that companies with 'implementation gaps' are inevitably hindered in realising the full potential of sustainability projects.  Change management is an essential business practice, so any corporate seeking to improve its sustainability is also going to realise benefits in its regular operations.

6. Give people responsibility

Just as it is impossible to effectively measure progress without KPIs, it is unlikely that sustainability will become rooted in an organisation unless individuals are empowered to take responsibility. This needs to occur at multiple levels within the organisation. For example, any employee whose role has a bearing on sustainability performance needs appropriate education and resources – and potentially incentives – to deliver on that target. Similarly, management must understand not only the specific targets that are important to a company’s sustainability plan but also the strategic rationale behind it.

Although many peoples’ job description will touch on sustainability, ultimately it may be necessary to appoint a senior executive with responsibility for sustainability – perhaps a chief sustainability officer (CSO) – to ensure accountability and a voice at the top table. But creating a CSO role doesn’t let other C-level executives off the hook when it comes to sustainability. Corporates need to ensure that sustainability doesn’t become stuck in a silo or seen as ‘someone else’s problem’: the more the CEO gets involved, for instance, the faster sustainability will become part of everyday business.


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