To chart the course of sustainability, grab the right map

It was a uniquely candid moment. My client, a director at a Fortune 500 company, interrupted our meeting to ask, "So, when will we get there? When will we be officially sustainable?" We were in the early stages of his company’s sustainability strategy development, and he wanted to see the finish line.

For those who have undertaken any aspect of corporate sustainability, his question may sound familiar.

The decision to engage in corporate sustainability, or to improve your company's current initiatives, requires thoughtful discussion, strategic planning and agreement among multiple parties.

Figuring out how to ultimately meet a corporate goal — be it greenhouse gas mitigation, water use reduction or employee engagement — can be overwhelming. "What do we do first? How long will this take? Which approach will benefit us the most?" The questions can be overwhelming, and, as in the case of my client, momentum stalls.

It doesn’t have to. Not only that, the momentum of those first strategic discussions can catapult you straight to your chosen finish line. Your team just needs the right roadmap to get there.

This is the purpose of sustainability "maturity models"; the somewhat misunderstood and underused roadmapping tools that serve to simply help companies get sustainability done.

What is a roadmap?

Roadmaps come in many flavors and are critical for turning strategy into action. They include maturity models (such as the Natural Capital Protocol) that break the process into consecutive phases — "Why? What? How? What next?" and reporting frameworks (from organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative and CDP) that drive sustainable performance through data disclosure.

Some roadmaps such as the Embedding Project are comprehensive management tools that aim to integrate sustainability deep into a business’s core practices. Others, such as the Future Fit Business Benchmark, also include performance models that help measure progress against corporate goals.

Most tools support self-assessments (UNGC Roadmap for Sustainability), others use guided consultation (Essensus) and some offer a combination of both (Deloitte).

Some provide organizations with a sustainability score (Lean Six Sigma). Many are free (WBCSD Vision 2050 Roadmap), and some are paid (The EPRI Maturity Model). 

Most roadmaps target all organizations (The Ceres Roadmap), but a number are sector-specific (Retail Industry Leaders Association) or topic-specific (UNGC Water Maturity Model).

What do they have in common? All serve as actionable tools for organizations to start making meaningful impact towards their sustainability goals.

The roadmap review

On behalf of the SHIFT.tools project of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, I undertook a review of more than 35 leading sustainability tools to better understand the existing landscape of roadmaps and maturity models.

This research took place between May and August and included a benchmarking analysis of these tools and their particular facets. It addressed questions such as: Do they include guided questions? Recommendations? What are their various levels of effort?

The ultimate goal of this research was to help sustainability managers quickly find the right tool for their organization by sorting and comparing them on MIT’s SHIFT platform. Based on my research, here are three big motivations for using one of these leading sustainability tools.

Tip 1: They help identify where you are on your journey.

Roadmaps help you understand exactly where your organization's strengths and weaknesses lie. 

The Embedding Project offers an introductory 60-question self-assessment as well as consulting options that help organizations understand how embedded sustainability is within their organization. For example, "To what extent do you proactively seek senior and mid-level management’s opinions about how to improve your sustainability performance?" It’s a critical look in the mirror, and the assessment results produce tailored recommendations invaluable to planning the way forward.

Sometimes these roadmaps also tell you where your organization measures up compared to your peers.

CDP, an annual voluntary reporting framework, scores companies’ responses every November and publishes the results by sector every November. Upon receiving your score, CDP then provides a one-on-one detailed breakdown of where your company is excelling, and where it has room for improvement.

Tip 2: They enable your team to seek tailored help.

The number of roadmaps, maturity models and assessment tools that exist to help companies is expanding rapidly in breadth as well as in depth.

Users with specific needs will find an increasing number of tools that could help them see the path forward on lifecycle assessment management, water management, supply chain management and greenhouse gas management.

Practitioners who want tools developed with their sector in mind will find roadmaps for consumer goods, information technology, oil and gas, retail and even Smart Cities.

Many of these roadmaps offer recommendations, varying from suggestions specific to the user to broader ideas. The Ceres Roadmap, for example, offers detailed explanations of "How to Get There" for particular sustainability performance goals. 

Tip 3: They help you envision the future.

Holding a clear picture of where you would like your organization to be in the future is a critical motivating factor behind implementing sustainability. "Stewarding the vision" is an essential exercise linking strategy to action. 

In other words, it’s OK to need to see the finish line.

Roadmaps illustrate that finish line in different ways. Some offer detailed tables where each step is mapped out chronologically (FutureFit). Some offer phased graphics (Deloitte), matrixes (CSR Quest), interactive templates (Sustainability Scorecard), detailed questionnaires (DJSI) and indexes (Higg Index), and some take the form of written reports (Ceres).

Get it done

Built on the understanding that businesses impact and serve more than just shareholders, using these tools can help organizations attract investors, differentiate themselves in their sector or market, attract and engage talent, generate press attention, advance policy, save money, identify market opportunities, form powerful partnerships, adhere to their missions and become societal leaders.

The complete suite of roadmapping tools, available at SHIFT, organizes the ever-broadening and deepening landscape of sustainability into a clear comparison set that users can use to find the perfect tool for them.

Not only will you get sustainability done, but the process will illuminate costs and benefits, risks and opportunities, dependencies and impacts. Whatever your vision for your company, the right roadmapping tool will light your path to get there.