Getting organized for sustainability: 8 questions to ask

This is the final piece of a three-part series on GreenBiz focused on how companies communicate their stance on sustainability through different channels, and what effect that can have on their reputations and bottom lines. Read the first piece (Right hand, meet left: How to align your message, avoid risk) and the second piece (No more greenwashing: How to tell your story right) here.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at how internal misalignment on sustainability can be a material risk when it comes to your corporate reputation and your current investments.

We’ve observed that this lack of alignment can come from:

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for achieving internal alignment on sustainability. Each company faces a unique set of challenges and constraints. We do, however, see that companies leading the way are proactively looking to align their sustainability actions across departments by beginning with self-reflection.

How can you do this in-house? Start by asking your colleagues the eight questions below.

  1. How does your company define sustainability? What’s in and what’s out? Is there a separate group working on corporate citizenship initiatives? How do social, environmental and philanthropic initiatives and strategies interact? Often times, we see that companies may have overlapping initiatives or different CSR efforts that could be aligned for greater effectiveness.
  1. Do you have an inventory of all the sustainability actions going on at your company? You might be surprised who is talking about sustainability or pursuing sustainability initiatives on your company’s behalf. Are there unknown unknowns?
  1. Do you have a sustainability strategy and goals? What is your overall corporate strategy? Are your sustainability initiatives integrated with this wider corporate strategy and directly relevant to your business priorities? This is a critical first step, or a double check, to ensure internal alignment. Random acts of green (a recycling program here, a reusable mug day there) are well-meaning, but can be ineffective or even counterproductive if they don’t align with broader corporate strategy.
  1. Who’s accountable and empowered? Where does the buck stop? Plenty of companies have sustainability teams, but not all employees know who is empowered to make decisions about sustainability and enforce them.  Is it your CEO, CMO, a strategy officer, the EH&S department, or perhaps your sustainability team itself? Who is accountable for facilitating cross-departmental sustainability action and communication?
  1. Is there a forum at your company for aligning and cross-pollinating ideas on sustainability? How is sustainability coordinated throughout the organization? Is there a sustainability team that convenes cross-functional groups? If someone at your company has an idea related to sustainability, whom do they take it to?
  1. Do you have systems in place for incorporating sustainability in decision-making? Is sustainability a criterion for purchasing decisions? Do you have a project gating system? Do you have a system to vet green marketing claims? Does sustainability factor into your acquisition due diligence process? Do you consider sustainability in your R&D and tech investments? Ensuring that all relevant decisions made across your business align with your green intentions can cut risk and reinforce your existing sustainability initiatives.
  1. Can everyone at your company articulate your company’s point of view on sustainability? Do you have a program to educate employees on your sustainability point of view? This is particularly important if, say, your company or industry is dealing with high-profile environmental issues. All of your employees should be aware of your company’s position and activities, especially in the event of an environmental crisis.
  1. What is the CEO’s relationship to sustainability? What has your chief executive said about sustainability? How, if at all, has his or her message changed across the years?  Is it aligned with actual performance and future plans? Your CEO can make or break your sustainability initiatives and investments, so a little proactivity in preparation goes a long way.

Each company has an opportunity to be great when it comes to sustainability. In the excitement around green and the rush to keep up with the crowd, it is easy to overlook small discrepancies in your company’s sustainability-related actions and messaging. Sometimes, it may not even be obvious that your actions have environmental implications that could affect your overall green reputation– think purchasing decisions, CEO statements, or political contributions. We offer this list of questions as a starting point for executives who are interested in aligning internally in order to minimize risk, maximize opportunity, and lead the way in sustainability innovation.

Right hand, meet left. You two should get to know each other.

Photo of rubber ducks provided by iofoto via Shutterstock