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Purpose and People

4 critical steps to embed sustainability into your organization

Integrating a sustainability strategy throughout the company can put your ESG goals on the fast track.

4 plants (increasing in size from left to right) growing out of the soil and a small globe

Source: Shutterstock/UnImages

We all know that it’s not enough for sustainability teams to act in a silo. To achieve real change, an organization must embed ESG commitments across all products and teams, and draw on the efforts and engagement of everyone from the CEO to frontline staff. 

Yet for so many sustainability leaders, this level of integration remains one of their biggest challenges. According to research by The Conference Board in July, just 13 percent of executives believe that sustainability is currently deeply embedded and less than half (49 percent) believe it is even moderately embedded. 

Clearly, it isn’t easy to achieve. 

As Niki King, vice president and head of sustainability at The Clorox Co., and formerly head of sustainability at Unilever North America, points out, "To embed sustainability there are no trade-offs, there's not a separate stand-alone sustainability strategy. It's all-encompassing. There has to be accountability at all levels of the organization. There need to be incentives tied to sustainability performance and all of your employees need to understand how they can play a part in helping to achieve the goals." 

In short, there are no half measures. So, for those currently working to better embed sustainability into their organizations, make sure you put the following four building blocks in place first.

1. Employee buy-in

This starts at the board level. Without buy-in from at the highest level of an organization, any effort to embed sustainability elsewhere will almost certainly fall flat, and sustainability leaders will find themselves spinning their wheels. Ultimately though, a sense of ownership over a sustainability strategy needs to come from all levels of an organization, with each employee made to feel empowered by leadership to share their ideas, provide feedback and get involved in sustainability programs. This may be achieved by way of financial incentives tied to either teams or individuals achieving ESG targets, says King.

According to research by Harvard Business Review, this sense of ownership is the most important element in embedding sustainability. It found that organizations that transformed employees from bystanders into active participants in achieving ESG goals not only ensured their teams felt empowered but also stood a far better chance of integrating those commitments successfully. At financial services company Old Mutual, for example, the sustainability chief organized a workshop for midlevel managers to demonstrate their direct impact on customers. Participants noted that they felt empowered to do far more than crunch numbers after attending, laying the foundations for wider discussions about ESG.

2. Governance 

Next, ensure the right governance structures are in place to integrate accountability at all levels of the organization. At larger organizations, creating this framework may be one of the primary roles of the board, working in collaboration with a chief sustainability officer (CSO). At small and medium enterprises, ensuring the right questions are being asked regarding the management of ESG programs may fall under the remit of a sustainability leader. If so, it’s a critical part of the role. Without the right scrutiny in place, it’s too easy for sustainability strategies to fall through the cracks. 

3. Strong leadership

CEOs can’t simply add sustainability to their long list of responsibilities and expect ESG programs to look after themselves. In fact, although 98 percent of CEOs say sustainability is core to their role, just 2 percent of the same organizations say their sustainability strategies succeed. That’s because CEOs need to be highly engaged with policies but also — need to delegate primary responsibility to a CSO who has the right combination of skills. These include resilience, both technical and business skills and — perhaps most important — the soft skills needed to inspire and encourage others to join them in making transformative change. Or as King puts it, leaders that know "building relationships has to be your superpower."

4. Awareness of local context 

Finally, ensure that sustainability strategies are developed with an appreciation for the local context. Often a sustainability strategy is developed by a small sustainability team at global headquarters without seeking input from the local markets. Then when the global team tries to tell the local market to adopt the strategy that it came up with, it doesn't always resonate. Instead, organizations need to be as inclusive as possible, seeking input from local markets to ensure there’s buy-in at every level. At international consumer goods company Danone, for example, the team included country-specific roadmaps in its Climate Transition Plan, each one adapted to local market features. 

The path to embedding sustainability across an organization isn’t always a straightforward one. It takes time, patience and, most likely, frustrating pushbacks. But it’s a critical component of achieving scalable change on ESG issues and — by implementing these four elements — the practitioner will see progress faster and with more support.

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