Harness these forces to transform your sustainability practices

Sustainability is no ordinary change-management challenge. An entire economic system is in transition. That’s why forces beyond the ordinary are so badly needed.

Over the past two years, while doing research for my new book, "Building a Culture for Sustainability," and for my teaching, I have been struck by three fundamental forces. These forces are at work across a range of companies and happening up, down and across hierarchies: co-creation, bottom-up initiative and people and companies taking the long view on who their markets will be and what those markets will need. It’s really happening, and whether in big ways or small it’s producing shifts in business culture.

I call them "TIPS": transformative-impact practices in sustainability. We’re headed toward TIPS becoming standard operating procedure, and that’s amazing.

What’s most striking about these TIPS is that they are increasingly organic and routine. We are well on our way to reaching a point of no return in how business operates, with sustainability and social responsibility coming from all sides, and internal and external collaboration really starting to take shape. They are simply becoming, for more people, what business is and does. Thanks to these TIPS (as well as others, of course) improving the planet and society are less special programs owned by special departments. That transition creates tipping points that get to the very roots of capitalism and culture.

These are things that are transforming business in ways that don’t make for splashy announcements, headlines and advertising — and don’t even make it into sustainability reports much of the time. After all, routine business practices and the business mindsets that drive daily decisions aren’t news.

Routine business such as:

• Alcatel-Lucent engineers and sales people think of themselves as providing customers with carbon-reduction products as well as telecommunications products — and they foster co-creation and mindset shifts by bringing their people together with customers, investors, ratings agencies and others to see how everything intersects.

• BASF requires the full range of employees across its entire organization — from the C-suite to the laboratory to the factory floor — to be able to articulate their own role in sustainability and include it in performance evaluations. They also build a lot of what they do around markets of 2050 — the hotter, more crowded world to come — and have built-in ways to link sustainability experts with partners in other departments.

• Ingersoll Rand has an in-house sustainability center to provide encouragement and muscle to bottom-up initiatives while also actively building a quest for the intersection of customers’ energy- and carbon-saving desires and willingness to pay.

The point is that people in these companies are being exposed to new ways of doing business and new categories of business objectives, are beginning to own them, and are unleashed to bring the world to a positive tipping point.

Every employee in every company knows that in doing his or her job, costs and revenues are a factor. Most people are aware of these things and have a meaningful sense of their role. Capitalism will reach the sustainability tipping point only when environmental and social good (not just impact, which implies avoiding harm as opposed to creating good) are equally self-evident, baked into every workday by everyone.

A BSR survey last year found that sustainability executives felt disconnected from nearly every part of their organization (although their reported connectedness to supply chains is a reminder of great progress). Co-creation and bottom-up approaches are powerful ways to begin to fix that. When you co-create, by definition you work across departments and even beyond the walls of your own company. When you empower bottom-up initiative, you don’t confine things to the sustainability experts. And when you allow the long view, it becomes easier for creative minds to step back and consider things that are slightly outside of their previously normal ways of thinking, to expand their world.

But something also is generally holding that force back, often serving as a drag on momentum — human resources departments. In the work for my book, I saw many times how sustainability and social responsibility are in danger of arrested development. Frankly, some are reaching that point now. Middle managers hear sustainability visions from the top and encounter different objectives in their routine meetings and daily work — objectives that aren’t necessarily in conflict but require certain kinds of training, co-creation and incentives to untangle. When in doubt, most people revert to more traditional behaviors and certainly notice what gets rewarded and what does not.

HR departments could be fuel for success: they have big influence in recruiting and hiring, coaching managers, professional development and incentive structures. They on-board employees, and if that on-boarding is limited to compartmentalized definitions of corporate citizenship, even that can have deep and lasting impact that counteracts progressive forces.

The BSR survey showed that sustainability executives felt tied into the C-suite and, of course, PR. They should focus on the HR suite, and CEOs should encourage both sides to get together. Co-create. It’s clear there’s a disconnect in even some of the finest companies.

For my book, I set out to catalog the dozens of ways sustainability happens. The sheer volume of activity at this stage is a clear indication that the simple act of going to work today is very different from what it was 20 years ago, whether it’s volunteer days or re-imagining telecommunications networks as agents of carbon reduction.

The TIPS I saw underlying a lot of what’s going on these days are a good reference point when thinking about what kinds of things produce habits that begin to change culture. There are others, of course, and I’d love to hear yours.

Top image of butterflies by rayjunk via Shutterstock