The Right Equation for a Corporate Culture Focused on Sustainability

The Right Equation for a Corporate Culture Focused on Sustainability

How can you shift a corporate culture so that it embodies environmental sustainability? That was just one of the big questions explored at the recent Green Innovation in Business Solutions Lab in New York City.

At these "open space" conferences, participants self-organize into working groups charged with finding solutions to specific challenges. I spent much of the day with 15 or so others equally passionate about building sustainability into organizational cultures.

Is it all about getting the incentives right, we wondered? Look at companies like Intel and Unilever that have added sustainability goals to their employee bonus programs. Or perhaps sustainability is brought in through recruiting practices that attract fresh green-minded talent?

Solutions LabShould sustainability be as much a social norm as safety is for many companies? Think about manufacturing facilities where employees are so trained in EH&S protocols that they remind each other to put on their safety goggles. But that approach might be too authoritative for companies that want their employees to feel empowered to innovate.

Is sustainability driven by front-line employees who want to feel good about where they work? Does it need to be led by the executives or embraced by middle-management?

Ultimately, we landed upon a simple equation for a sustainability culture:

Start with a company-wide BHAG -- you know, the "Big Hairy Audacious Goal." It must come from the top (after some coaxing from sustainability champions at lower levels), and be sufficiently ambitious and inspirational -- so much so that it's likely no one will know exactly how they are going to get there. Recall Walmart's mandate to create zero waste; Unilever's vision to double the size of the business while reducing overall environmental impact; or Cisco System's 25 percent absolute carbon reduction goal.

Divide this BHAG by a set of programs that suit a given company -- polices, competitions, incentives or training programs, combined with a data gathering and reporting mechanism.

Add in a critical variable: Passionate internal advocates who keep the drumbeat going.

Hit the "equal" sign and voila! You have solved for a sustainability-focused corporate culture.

Or have you? Let us know what your equation looks like.

Beth Trask is deputy directory of Environmental Defense Fund's Innovation Exchange and works with the organization's Corporate Partnerships Program in EDF's San Francisco office. This content is cross-posted on EDF's Innovation Exchange blog and is reprinted with permission. 

Image CC licensed by Flickr user photojenni.