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CEOs Can Embed a Culture of Sustainability Beyond their Departure

<p>A new report from the Network for Business Sustainability looks at how corporate leaders have succeeded in building their sustainability efforts into the DNA of the company, regardless of who is sitting in the C-suite.</p>

At times it seems like nearly every company is engaged in sustainability initiatives large and small, long-term and short, a promising sign for the global environment. But what will happen when today's leaders are just tomorrow's legends?

A new report from the Network for Business Sustainability looks at the ways that executives can ensure their companies remain innovative long after they depart.

The report, "Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture," looks at over 13,000 academic and industry publications to create what the NBS calls a Systematic Review of existing best practices and research, synthesized into a tool that even the busiest business leaders can use.

"This research takes a large and sometimes confusing body of information and synthesizes it into a holistic -- yet practical -- framework for building sustainability into a business," Karen Clarke-Whistler, Chief Environment Officer for TD Bank Group and a member of the Network's Leadership Council, said in a statement around the report's release.

The report, authored by Dr. Stephanie Bertels on the faculty of the business school at Simon Fraser University, groups the practices that can embed sustainability into an organization into four categories: Fostering commitment; clarifying expectations; building momentum for change; and instilling capacity for change.

Bertels and the NBS published two versions of the report, a 20-page Executive Report and a full 73-page Complete Systematic Review. The Executive Report serves as a "how-to" guide for corporate leaders, and breaks the four categories down into increasingly granular levels of practice. The figure below shows Bertels' "portfolio approach" to embedding sustainability. (Click image for full-sized version.)

a portfolio approach to business sustainability

"Compliance in the absence of innovation means you're operating in yesterday's economy and will be left behind," Bertels said in a statement. "However, innovation in the absence of compliance exposes you to risk. My research presents a framework for balancing both."

The report also features case studies from companies that have embraced many of the report's recommendations, including Suncor Energy, Canadian Pacific, and Teck.

Among the takeaways of the report are:


• Embedding sustainability in organizational culture is still an emerging field of research. There has been a very limited amount of research that addresses the issue of embedding sustainability into organizational culture. This is an area where practice often leads theory.


• The research that has been conducted on embedding sustainability continues to be dominated by exploratory, case-based research with an emphasis on success stories.

• There is a lack of clear definitions (what academics call construct clarity) in this field -- terms are used somewhat interchangeably and are often not defined.

The reports are available for free download from the Network for Business Sustainability: 20-page Executive Report [PDF], and 73-page Complete Systematic Review [PDF].

For more information about the Network for Business Sustainability, see this interview with the Network's managing director, Tom Ewart: "Bridging the Gap Between Green Business Research and Practice."

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