These are indeed difficult and extraordinary times for businesses, and the natural reaction is to cut back on areas such as sustainability, which are not quite yet an established function in most companies, don't necessarily bring in direct revenue, and are not core competencies for many.
Cutting back on sustainability now, however, would be a mistake because it will only get more expensive to implement programs in the future, when more of your competitors are doing it as well. One of the most critical elements of understanding sustainability and making it a driver of value is getting out of the starting blocks and up the learning curve.
Here are seven activities you can do, with minimal investment in a down economy, to start getting up that learning curve.
The key is to start. Like any journey, the hardest part is getting off the couch or out the door. Begin now.
Build the Yugo
There is an inclination to reveal a Cadillac when you unveil your sustainability strategy. You don't. Build the Yugo first.
This was a lesson we learned in Silicon Valley during the tech boom. That bubble created several distortions, one of which was the belief that you needed to have your "beta" version perfect before you made the first release. Most of those companies burned through their cash before they had a chance to make a difference.
The mantra we used at the start-up where I worked was "Build the Yugo, Build the Yugo" (this was, unfortunately, after we had been mired in months of trying to get a Cadillac on the showroom floor). The same holds true with sustainability.
Start simple. Measure ... carbon, for starters. What you measure, you can monitor. What you monitor, you can change.
It is a wooly word. Ask 50 companies, NGOs, or sustainability consulting firms, and you will get 40 different definitions, while the other 10 will ask you whether you mean business sustainability, environmental sustainability or if you're trying to invite them to a conference they don't want to attend.
Twenty-five years ago, The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." While that is more of a macro-economic definition than micro-economic, that is a good a place as any to start. Sustainability is using resources at a rate that can be renewed or using the earth as a sink at a rate that does not exceed its absorption capacity.
Academics and writers have been focused on sustainability long before we started to notice demonstrable change in climate or "green" entered the hyperbolic realm of Madison Avenue's whiteboards. If you want to get specific, look to Herman Daly, Eric Neumeyer, Kenneth Bolding, Aldo Leopold, among many others.
But for starters, pick a definition that makes sense to you, your employees, and your stakeholders, and go with it.
Know Your Company
Every company will be at a different point on the sustainability awareness curve.
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If you are a company that is or has been a non-believer in climate change, you are making that decision based on emotion -- don't bother with a sustainability initiative. You can't argue with emotion using reason. Exxon is a good example of this. At the top end of the curve, you have complete believers -- such as Patagonia or Seventh Generation, who are also making decisions on emotion. Here you obviously want to appeal to the values of your employees and the culture of your company to ensure the success of initiatives.
In between is a broad spectrum of companies that are all making decisions on sustainability based on rational decision-making -- what makes for good business? Here you want to know what your awareness is, who needs to be convinced, and make a business case for change.
We often see clients whose employees are more aware than management about sustainability. You can have internal champions who can help build the case for initiatives, but remember there needs to be a strong business case. Trying to argue with reason using emotion fails. Emotion is what drives you to advocate for change, while reason is often what makes it happen.