The path to sustainability is still uncharted for many businesses. Many corporate leaders we read about are blazing a trail by innovating shared value programs. For those of us who aren’t leading the pack, and especially for small to midsize businesses, sustainability can seem daunting as well as exciting, rich with opportunities but littered with challenges.
If you are trying to keep up with the market leaders it can certainly feel like climbing a mountain. So with that metaphor in mind, what do sustainability professionals who aspire to turn sustainability into competitive advantage need in their knapsack?
How will you get there if you don't know where you're going? Before you set out on this adventure of turning your company’s sustainability opportunities into measurable brand advantage, aim your compass and establish the direction you'll take through a robust strategy. This will require researching the market (or trails), understanding your competition (or other hiking troops) and doing a deep dive into what the business model, objectives and goals are.
This means you should either hire a strategy consultancy, such as Corporate Citizenship or SustainAbility, or a "Big 4" firm such as PricewaterhouseCoopers to help, or do it yourself if you are strategically minded. Perhaps even partner with your internal strategy team on writing the sustainability strategy together. If you brave it on your own, you can leverage great resources online to help, such as this sample Sustainability Plan (PDF) or this book about "10 action items for your sustainability strategy."
Once you have a more in-depth understanding of why you need a strategy and what key elements need to be in it, then you can build a framework that prioritizes sustainability issues, risks and opportunities and stakeholders. How will this strategy put your company on track for achieving results for the triple bottom line?
This is your implementation plan. What does the topography of sustainability look like for your organization? Map it out in terms of time frames, budgets, people and resources, then plot your ascent. Who can be your champions within the organization who will, in their spare time, help you achieve your sustainability program goals?
A map is always just a guide to implement your strategy and your innovative “intrapreneurs” may challenge the formality of it. But a strategy is only strong if it can be embedded into the daily objectives of each employee. The implementation plan will include policies to embed the key elements across all key operational departments. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has a Sustainability Framework: From Policy Update to Implementation that is useful, and the Oxford Consulting Group in Canada has an implementation framework for Walmart (PDF) that it shares.
Anticipate the ravines, rocky terrains and cliff faces that you'll need to scale to reach the pastures of sustainability -- without getting frazzled or going off the trail.
The weather can change quickly up on the mountain -- and you'll need a thick skin to keep your spirits up when the clouds roll in. Sustainability professionals tend to sit between cross-functional groups and it can be a lonely place. Develop your support networks -- such as a mentor, a CSR drinks club such as Green Drinks, motivating networks related to sustainability, inspirational books or social networks to lean on when times get tough. Try searching for the many active groups on LinkedIn to help you seek out fellow professionals, or look at the 2DegreesNetwork, Greenbiz's Sustainability Consultants Directory or the GreenBiz Executive Network to find other practitioners in your area. Net Impact has a number of global professional chapters, too. The more you engage, the more like-minded people you'll come across.
4. A rope
A rope is one of the best mountaineering tools. For a sustainability pro, you need a rope for team members to hold onto to keep going in the same direction, much like preschool kids use on a field trip. Each hiker will be more assured with something solid to hold on to. Clear goals and team-building exercises will increase empowerment and engagement, not to mention commitment and resilience. Keep these goals at the front of your mind and use them as a framework for structuring meetings, milestones and annual reviews -- to keep everyone going in the same direction. GreenBiz offers some interesting articles on employee engagement, including a 5-part series detailing the steps to engaging employees for sustainability.
5. Field guide
Hikers worth their salt know how to read the landscape. A field guide can tell you a lot about the ecology of a place and how the ecosystems work together to support life. Your field guide will do the same thing, except in terms of stakeholders. What are their natural habitats? What are their needs? How do they work together to make your business function? Understanding them will make it easier to plot a route that creates shared value, rather than bulldozing the way through and upsetting a delicate balance.
Draft your guide in a way that it will grow with you as you learn more about your stakeholders’ styles of communication, priorities or ways of working. Business for Social Responsibility has a quick-read mapping guide (PDF). Two additional must-reads are Peter Senge’s book Presence, which dives into how profound transformational change arises, and John Elkington’s latest, The Zeronauts. Both books draw on the wisdom of global social leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and other stakeholders around sustainability and disruptive change, giving you insights into the stakeholders you may be mapping to.
Communicating your journey will bring it to life. To motivate others, you need to share stories from your journey and present them in a way that makes sense to people from different backgrounds. Doing so requires an awareness of where others are at, so first develop your listening skills to help you to engage everyone from the admin department to board level. Take a ton of photos and even better, videos of what your champions, employees and stakeholders are up to.
You can weave this into a real-life story that reaches your wider audience and convinces others of the validity of your program. Video clips get the most click-throughs on websites and are a powerful way to bring a sustainability story to life in just a few minutes. Tell your story everywhere and anywhere -- on the company's website, in internal communications among employees, in marketing and -- of course -- social media, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn.
This is where you measure successes and track your progress towards the summit; it’s the doorstop-sized “Sustainability Report” that no one reads. But measurement and evaluation are crucial to justifying your strategy using real numbers, as your stakeholders, especially investors, your board and corporate customers will come asking for them. The more the sustainability metrics can link to the bottom line, the more buy-in you will gain from internal leadership as well. Write down your targeted metrics that you will be judging your program against before you set out.
This may start as a model in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and turn into a complex Environmental Management System, depending on how big your company is and where it is on its journey. Puma even launched the first environmental profit-and-loss account to value impacts. Reporting on what you achieved, and what you didn’t, as well as what the new targets will be, are essential elements of transparency -- how else will your colleagues and customers know how and when you've reached your goals and maximized opportunities?
Image of compass by Galushko Sergey via Shutterstock