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Creating an Effective Plan for Your Sustainability Efforts

As with any organizational initiative, successful implementation of sustainability is more readily achieved when efforts are based on a coherent and thoughtful plan. Marsha Willard offers advice on how to do that.

As with any organizational initiative, successful implementation of sustainability is more readily achieved when efforts are based on a coherent and thoughtful plan. A good plan enables you to coordinate efforts, track progress and focus energies on the highest priority activities. A sustainability plan is both a guidance document as well as the foundation for a reporting system. It need not be voluminous to be effective. In fact the more concise and easy to read it is, the more useful it will be to your efforts.

What should a sustainability plan contain? While any plan needs to be tailored to the organization that it serves, you will want to be sure to include these five basic components.

1. Sustainability framework. The direction your efforts take will be determined by the way you define sustainability. We strongly recommend couching your program in terms of a sustainability framework. There are several to choose from (The Natural Step; Triple Bottom Line, Agenda 21, CERES, etc.). Select one that has the most resonance for your organization. The point of the framework is to provide a shared vision and common language with which to speak about sustainability.

2. Rationale. Your sustainability efforts should also have a solid link to your organization's strategic plan (if sustainability goals have not already been embedded into your normal business plan). If sustainability is not a strategic initiative, if there is not as solid a rationale for pursuing it along with the other goals in your strategic plan, it will always be an ancillary effort and as such at risk of abandonment for "real" work.

Be sure that all the people involved in your efforts understand the compelling reason for pursuing sustainability. This rationale elevates the importance of your intentions and establishes the justification for the commitment of resources. The business case for sustainability is usually easily made from an examination of relevant environmental and social trends. How might these trends threaten your ability to operate? What opportunities do these trends present for distinguishing yourselves in your industry or for inspiring innovations. What would happen if you didn’t respond at all to these trends? What would the cost be of doing nothing?

3. Vision. Using your chosen framework, paint a picture of a sustainable version of your organization. Ask yourselves what your organization would look like, what it would be doing, and what it would contribute in a fully sustainable world. Use a distant enough time horizon to help you get passed the limits of today’s thinking. While the answers to these questions might seem too fantastic, be careful not to set your sights prematurely low. Remember that true sustainability is the necessary end goal; anything short of that won’t solve the problem.

4. Key impacts. An analysis of your key impacts (as defined by your framework) will form the basis of your effort. While there are many exhaustive processes to help you conduct a thorough impacts analysis, we recommend beginning with a more informal “gut check” analysis that draws upon your existing familiarity with your own organization. Start with this basic list of questions:
  • What comes into our organization? What materials do we use, what products do we buy, what energy and water do we consume, and how are these products, our employees and our customers transported to us?
  • What happens inside our facilities? What are the impacts of our key processes and activities? How are our facilities run and managed?
  • What comes out of our operation? What “non-products” result from our processes and what happens to them? What happens to our products once they leave us? What is the impact of our products over their life span?
  • What impact do we have on our community? What are our relationship and our interdependence with our local community? What do we take from the community and what do we give to it?
  • What is our impact on our industry? Are we in a position to affect change industry wide?

Hold the answers to these questions up to your sustainability framework to reveal your biggest impacts or areas for improvement.

5. Action Plan.The impacts assessment should reveal opportunities for improvements. Once you have prioritized your action ideas, flesh out your intents for each action item. The sample chart below lays out the basic information you will want to establish for each of the goals in your plan. Our example illustrates the format using the goal of achieving a nearly paperless operation. This chart will become the heart of your plan as well as the basis for a reporting structure.

The plan outlined above could easily be produced by a single person in a matter of hours. But that approach will miss important opportunities for educating and engaging important stakeholders and may miss important input and information as well. We recommend a more participative process that requires a little more time and energy upfront, but results in a product that will be more useful and more widely supported. It’s not about the plan, after all, so much as it is about the conversation that creates it.

Consider convening a planning committee that represents the key stakeholder groups of the organization. The primary purpose of this group is to set the direction for sustainability for the organization, create the sustainability plan and then steward the sustainability efforts. Our recommendation is that some, if not all, of senior leadership be on the committee as well as representatives from key departments within the organizations. First priority is given to those departments or functions that are likely to be impacted by sustainability related projects. Usually this includes facilities, purchasing, human resources and production. Once the plan has been created, the planning committee should take responsibility for monitoring progress, trouble shooting the implementation, removing obstacles, advocating for resources, and reporting results.

Whether you are implementing a wholesale organizational initiative or just rolling out a few pilot efforts under the radar, taking the time to document your plans and ideas will lay a firm foundation for your efforts and increase the likelihood that they will take hold in the organization.


Marsha Willard is co-founder and principal of Axis Performance Advisors, Inc., a Portland based consulting firm specializing in helping organizations implement sustainable business practices. She is also co-author of The Business Guide to Sustainability.

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