6 ways retailers can jump in to sustainability

Unfortunately, there is no handbook for how professionals new to a retail sustainability position should get started. What exacerbates the problem in retail is that we tend to see sustainability hires reporting through roles that span business functions such as public relations, human resources and legal. That means that they tend to not have purview over a direct functional area, such as store operations or transportation.

Based on my experience interacting with retail sustainability professionals -- as well as the results from the Retail Industry Leaders Association's latest Retail Sustainability Report -- I see 6 steps to success in this role. Experienced professionals spend most of their time on orchestrating internal efforts, developing strategies and engaging executives; newcomers should follow their example.

1. Consider sustainability on a global scale

Start off by considering the global context underlying your role. That might include resource depletion or other risks for the commodities that your company depends on. Perhaps this includes water, minerals, fisheries, forests or agriculture; climate risks such as heat waves, floods or wildfires; or the ethical treatment of people and animals. Focus on those that relate directly to your company’s success and relate your business to the broader industry landscape -- in other words, those issues material to your business.

2. Map sustainability to the context of your business

Consider the most significant ways in which your business impacts the environment. Start with the operational functions of primary importance to retail: buildings (store and distribution centers), products and supply chains, and stakeholder engagement.

Now consider why your role was created: Why does your organization need to address the impacts it has on the environment? Maybe you company wants to improve its compliance with regulations, improve consumer loyalty, manage its reputation or brand, save money, avert supply chain risks, grow revenue, reflect stakeholder values, keep up with competitors or just “do the right thing.”

One of the most valuable aspects of corporate sustainability is that it can simultaneously address multiple business priorities. A project that tackles the above concerns but also reinforces with your company’s values -- whether that means innovating, providing great service, reducing costs or anything else -- is the best place to start. Identify those areas that can improve all of your company’s triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental.

It’s important to identify the areas of your company that represent the largest environmental impact, but also to specifically recognize the projects that can build your credibility within the organization. Prioritizing those strategic opportunities first grows the organization’s capacity and enthusiasm to take on more.

3. Meet and build trust with the key internal players

In any business environment, decisions come down to facts, people, priorities and influence. As you develop a strategy, identify the key influencers that can help you plan and execute on it. To identify those key influences, an exercise called influence mapping is a frequently used tool. Influence mapping helps to discover and illustrate both the responsibilities and relationships of people in your organization – and even external influencers – to determine whom to approach and in what sequence.

Seek to answer the questions: Who are your supporters, your non-supporters, and who is neutral to your objectives? Once you’ve identified the critical people, consider them as individuals. What kind of message and in what form best resonates with him or her? It might be a detailed analysis driven by facts, anecdotes from important stakeholders, easily digested summaries, a tone of urgency or a sense of opportunity. What gets them excited? How can you provide value so they will participate?

Network with those individuals to identify what they value. If you’re hoping they can help you with your program, know how you can help them in their role. Consider who makes decisions, who influences whom, how strong their influence is and the path to getting a decision. Leverage a variety of channels, including meetings, presentations and day-to-day interactions, to form a strong professional relationship. And remember the importance of the messenger; in some cases, others may be able to build or communicate a case more strongly than you can. Leverage your growing supporter base to tell success stories and promote ideas.

4. Develop a strategy that aligns with other parts of the business

Now that you know your company’s greatest environmental impacts, key internal players and the issues garnering the most internal enthusiasm, you can form your strategy. Retail sustainability strategies typically have a 5-year horizon and include goals, internal and external engagement tactics and reporting mechanisms.

Based on your strategy, prioritize the stakeholders to engage and create a plan to approach them. In retail, achieving more sustainable stores will require the active participation of facilities and real estate managers. Integrating sustainability into supply chains will require merchant and sourcing team involvement.

And as with any business initiative, in addition to engaged employees, you will need measurable, results-driven targets. Some retailers develop energy reduction targets, either as an absolute goal (such as 20 percent energy reduction) or a relative goal (30 percent energy reduction per unit sales), landfill diversion targets, consumer engagement targets or others still. The financials should be front and center -- retailers typically look for a 2-3 year payback on sustainability-related projects -- but take a page from other strategic areas of the business and consider all forms of added value. In addition to reduced costs, sustainability benefits retail through brand enhancement, risk management, employee enthusiasm and staying ahead of regulations.

5. Assemble a governance structure to execute

The right governance structures build buy-in and bring decision-makers to the table. A governance system includes three things: First, it's what information is gathered, who gets access to it and how it is reported. Next, it's how resources such as capital and time are allocated. Third, it's who makes decisions and how they are enforced. 

In retail, we tend to see companies form governance councils that are composed of executives from across the business. You also may want to proactively engage external stakeholders who can provide valuable expertise and resources, and even help you promote your effort if you want to share the results publicly.

6. Incorporate new ideas and take advantage of organizational energy that emerges

Project execution is an ongoing effort that requires active management. Use your governance structure, as well as a variety of formal and informal mechanisms, to actively seek feedback and new ideas. Retailers have incorporated microsites on their intranets, employee blogs, sustainability forums or interest groups, and more to engage employees throughout the organization. Doing so will spur new ideas and continue to expand the excitement for sustainability programs.

And find ways to keep the momentum going from successful projects. Be open and communicative throughout your efforts so that others find you and join in the company’s journey. The more people that are aware and involved in your program, the more expertise, resources, time, energy and buy-in you will enjoy.

More than anything else, recognize the creative opportunity your job requires; sustainability is a field of innovation. Think to the future and identify the trends that affect or will affect the industry. Tackling uncharted territory for your company is no simple task, but stay energized and never stop learning.

Image of open sign by las - initially via Flickr