How to deliver the "whole sustainability package" in 4 steps

The "whole sustainability package." It sounds ideal, doesn't it? It brings to mind something that allows corporate sustainability professionals to breathe a sigh of relief and sleep well at night, because they know they work for a company committed to striving continually for minimal environmental impact while protecting the bottom line and being socially responsible.

It sounds like it supports a systemic corporate-wide framework of past, present and future sustainability efforts, allowing for tracking, reporting and continual progress. It sounds like a meaningful and catchy way to broadcast wholesome greatness to consumers.

You're probably wondering where you can get something like that. The key to making it happen is the development of a sound plan for reporting on sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

Communicating your efforts

Consumers and executives must understand sustainability efforts so they can differentiate products or services from the competition. According to OptSustain, a web-enabled sustainability management and reporting tool, "[CSR or] sustainability reporting is not just report generation of collected data; it is a method to internalize and improve an organization's commitment to sustainable development in a way that can be demonstrated to both internal and external stakeholders."

Companies can do the tracking themselves, or several organizations already are assessing this information, such as CSRHub, the Global Reporting Initiative (Sustainability Disclosure Database) and the Carbon Disclosure Project. The European Union also recently made CSR reporting mandatory. 

Technology providers and companies trying to improve and report on corporate social responsibility and sustainability need to improve their tools in order to do this kind of reporting. Even the term "corporate sustainability reporting" is confusing. Most people don't know what it is. They just want to know that a company "can make money without doing evil," as Google puts it in its "10 Things We Know To Be True."

Sustainability professionals need to have a wide range of skills. They find themselves sometimes earning cross-discipline degrees, in information technology, group facilitation and communications. They must be excellent networkers and facilitators, with a touch of game-show-host, to be able to engage stakeholders in the reporting process. Data needs to be collected in nodes before it is tallied corporate-wide so that it can be used to create friendly competitions between departments and locations.

When the groups that manage sustainability, information technology and communications are working in siloes, it can be difficult to achieve cohesive results. This is why very few companies are able to achieve that elusive and coveted "whole sustainability package."

The process for adopting this package can be summarized in four steps, each requiring different areas of expertise:

1. Benchmarks and metrics

In order to accomplish sustainability goals in multiple facility locations, it is critical to research and develop benchmarks into easily understandable checklists so that you end up with uniform results throughout the company. You also need to simultaneously track metrics in order to measure success. To do this, you must find acceptable third-party calculations whose assumptions and sources can be trusted. Often, these metrics can be compiled into a handful of environmental and sustainability currencies, such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions, gallons of water saved, waste reduced, jobs created and dollars of donations.

2. Data tracking

Once you have developed the metrics and benchmarks, they must be built into tools to make the tracking process easy for users. Collecting metrics needs to be efficiently built-in as a part of the process, not as an afterthought.

3. Green teams

You can't do all of this work by yourself. Building cross-disciplinary teams at each facility makes it easier to move through the checklist and track progress. The teams could consist of leads from each department. It is especially important to engage leads from facilities and/or custodial departments. You can improve employee engagement in the process and productively encourage innovation by creating rewards, friendly competitions or games surrounding accomplishments.

4. Marketing and communications

Once your teams have done the work and collected the data, you or your marketing/communications expert must translate sustainability data into information that makes sense to the general public. Although your sustainability peers may be very excited about the tons of greenhouse gases you have reduced, that isn't a metric that makes sense to your customers. Instead, you want to find a way to explain the data in a way that gets them excited about purchasing a product or using a service. Perhaps that means translating it into the energy to power whole neighborhoods, or the equivalent of hectares of rainforest restored. Once you've determined the story you want your data to tell, use your communications expertise to tie the story into your company's product or service, and to make sure that you're telling that story to consumers. Green marketing is a completely new paradigm. Consumers expect a company to add value to its community, not just in dollars, but also in social capital.

Consumers are also savvy enough to know when they are being misled, and there is some corporate mistrust. You may need some third-party certifications to back up your claims. Lean heavily on these certifications, as well as social media, to broadcast your efforts. Consumers trust messages that come from their peers, friends and third parties.

Finally, you need to tie it all into a small, succinct and catchy message that is worth repeating, both through traditional and social marketing channels. According to a 2011 study by Sustainable Life Media and Zumer, "Companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dell and Toyota ... have unearthed the enormous potential of combining social media and sustainability to gain market share and acquire customers in new and growing markets."

One third-party certification is the California Green Business Program's web-based GreenBizTRACK (PDF) database (which co-author Jo Fleming runs). Other sustainability and corporate social responsibility reporting tools include the 360ReportISO 26000 and 14000, and OptSustain.

Package photo by dreamerve via Shutterstock