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5 ways to create a strong sustainability culture

It's more than employee engagement — it's a strategic imperative.

Executives often say they want to do more about sustainability and climate change, but that it seems impossible. On a personal level, it can feel that way for us all because climate action requires the most complex (and intriguing) of behavioral challenges: to become more proactive; prevent undesired futures; and create better futures.

Truly, one person or organization can’t stop climate change, but each can make a significant impact. The realistic goal is not to prevent climate change, but to make progress. Business, which makes the world go 'round, surely can slow down the climate train that already has left the station. And organizations and the people in them also can change direction onto a better path to a stronger, sustainable future.

Sustainability has reached a level of strategic imperative. The needed discourse is no longer about whether to incorporate sustainability into strategy and operations, or even how to do it — but how to do it better. One solution, begging for more widespread application, is to develop a strong culture of sustainability.

What is a sustainability culture, really?

An organization’s culture is the set of important assumptions that its members share about its goals, values and beliefs, which in turn influence their behavior. Beliefs can be about personal topics such as how you get ahead and what gets you fired; they also can be as broad as how the world works. For example, a top management team might deny, ignore or fear global warming; consider climate change to be relevant now or only to future generations; or believe that the climate affects the company not at all or in myriad vital ways.

Renowned MIT management professor Edgar Schein maintains that the only thing that distinguishes leadership from management is that leaders create and manage the organization’s culture. A leader defines a culture by embodying values and fostering norms, and then turns them into shared rules for behavior.

A strong sustainability culture exists if people share a belief in sustainability’s importance and behave in ways that support it.
Your sustainability culture can be strong or weak. A strong one exists if people share a belief in sustainability’s importance and behave in ways that support it — including making decisions that balance long-term considerations with short-term needs. People see it as a priority rather than a pipe dream and don’t often throw it by the wayside in favor of other objectives. 

A culture is not determined strictly by what top management says it is, but by what the organization’s members perceive. People see what management does and interpret their actions; they read signals sent by the design of performance management systems, the criteria used (and not used) to reward and discipline people, the topics that regularly drive conversations, the stories people tell and rituals and ceremonies that convey messages about what is most valued. 

Ideally, the company itself embeds within a broader ecology of other organizations that support and model sustainability actions, such as sustainability coalitions, customers, suppliers, communities and public commitments such as signing onto the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project). This provides external monitoring and feedback that add extra layers of accountability that can strengthen the sustainability culture.

A strong sustainability culture exists when people…

  • Understand the sustainability imperative

Environmentalism is vital but doesn't resonate with everybody. Fact is, most everyone has serious reasons to care about sustainability. Climate change affects everything from water and food to human migration and war, and from economies and supply chains to customer and investor pressures.

Emotionally, a sustainability culture engenders both immediate concern and hope for the future. Rationally, it clarifies the rational business logic for caring and acting. Climate change is not just a green thing; it is about profit and loss, problem and opportunity, business and morality, a benefit to ourselves and the world.  

Shortly before Christmas, 196 governments (not including the United States) agreed in Poland on a legal rulebook for implementing the goals agreed to earlier in Paris. Global conferences usually get mixed reviews, but here is an important bottom line: The world knows that climate change no longer occupies only a distant future or confined geography, but is anchored firmly in the here and now.

Another development in the Poland summit: the United States stepped back, and China moved into a leadership role. Tha has the international politics and power angle: Can the United States continue to cede climate leadership to China and other global competitors?

  • Establish and follow a sustainability vision

It is time for a game-changing swing into serious action. Most businesses need to strengthen their sustainability actions and redo their plans. 

It is time for a game-changing swing into serious action. Most businesses need to strengthen their sustainability actions and redo their plans.
Ask yourself and colleagues, does our vision lead us forward on an adequately effective sustainability path? Or does it lure us back into old practices and perpetuate business as usual? A strong vision is not a cliché, not a set of generic boilerplate platitudes, not empty and cynical. It is likely to benefit from involving employees in the creation process, and from sharing it proudly, widely and often.   

Your sustainability vision could describe your aspirations, culture and highest-leverage sustainability niches focused on particular sectors, goods, services or customer segments. A compelling vision offers a sense of meaning and purpose, plus guidance for your strategies, goals and values. It is not a one-off exercise, but a long-term guiding light that inspires people and helps coordinate collective action.

  • Face reality, without sugarcoating

Executives often think their companies are doing better than they actually are in their sustainability pursuits. Companies around the world are vastly understating the risks that climate change poses to their business. A just-published study using data from the disclosures of more than 1,600 global companies showed that they collectively under-report the financial implications of climate risks to investors by at least 100 times.

Pause and reflect on that. The researchers admit that their data are not perfect (what data set is?). But even if we downsize their figure, we still should conclude that companies either don’t know or don’t disclose the real answers to the questions investors are asking.    

We reflexively can discount such astonishing estimates when thinking about climate risks, financial risks and needed organizational change. However, we dismiss them at our peril. We have downplayed off-putting climate estimates and failed to take urgent action for far too long.

  • Embed sustainability in decision-making processes

Important decisions rarely are easy, but they become far more complicated when sustainability seriously enters the picture.

Sustainability is culturally ingrained when it enters into major decisions of every type.
Many technical tools, software platforms, methodologies and systems exist for supporting and structuring sustainability decisions using quantifiable criteria. To employ some of them is a good step, but they do not comprise a true sustainability culture.

In a true sustainability culture, people discuss the issue explicitly and embed it in decision-making processes. To make a business case for an action is to take an integrative view that jointly considers profit, people and the planet. Sustainability is culturally ingrained when it enters into major decisions of every type: corporate and business strategies and performance goals at every organizational level, in every function, and core managerial processes and operations.

  • Engage fully

A strong culture motivates people in desirable directions. You want a culture in which people feel responsible for contributing to the changes you want, feel empowered to act on behalf of sustainability and realize multiple types of rewards for their sustainability contributions.

Empowerment is often an empty buzzword but is powerful when done right. People must believe they can contribute meaningfully, by having the requisite knowledge, information, competence and power to make the right choices. 

Extrinsic rewards are useful at first, tied explicitly to appropriate decisions and actions. But for the long haul, intrinsic rewards must sustain the effort. Personal gratification and satisfaction come from pursuing and making progress on such a valuable cause. Ideally, people develop a strong sense of stewardship: psychological ownership of important work and pleasure derived from collective benefits deep into the future.

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