How to Embed Sustainability Into Your Company's DNA

How to Embed Sustainability Into Your Company's DNA

The nonprofit Ceres unveiled a comprehensive report today to help companies embed sustainability into their DNA in order to successfully compete in today's changing business landscape.

"The 21st Century Corporation: The Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability" makes the business case for why companies should be rethinking their corporate structures, processes and performance, while also offering advice and case studies of how companies are putting these practices to work.

Yet while there are clearly corporate leaders enjoying the benefits that sustainability has to offer, the business community at large has a long way to go before it comes close to fulfilling the 2020 targets Ceres has set for achieving a sustainable global economy. {related_content}"Sustainability performance is fundamental for business success in the 21st century," Ceres President Mindy S. Lubber, said in a statement. "If businesses deepen their efforts to solve social and environmental threats, it will position them to innovate and compete in the fast-changing, resource-constrained global economy. It is no longer enough for companies to have special projects or initiatives. Comprehensive sustainability strategies are expected." 

The report lists 20 key expectations in four broad areas: governance, stakeholder engagement, disclosure and performance. Tips for achieving each expectation are given, along with an example illustrating how companies are approaching the challenge.

For instance, an expectation around governance dictates that:

"The Board of Directors will provide oversight and accountability for corporate sustainability strategy and performance. A committee of the board will assume specific responsibility for sustainability oversight within its charter."

Ceres recommends recruiting directors with diverse backgrounds and sustainability expertise, giving them ongoing training on key sustainability issues, and making sustainability the focus of a specific board committee, such as Nike's Corporate Responsibility Committee, which reviews policies and makes recommendations to the board of directors on a range of initiatives and practices.

Other key expectations for companies include:

• Sustainability disclosures in financial filings

• Public statement of positions on relevant sustainability public policy issues

• Addressing sustainability risks and opportunities during various investor communications, such as annual meetings and analyst calls

• Third party verification of key performance data

• Engage stakeholders in an ongoing, in-depth and timely fashion, while disclosing the incorporation of shareholder input

The performance category, which Ceres deems the most significant, covers five areas -- operations, supply chain, transportation and logistics, products and services, and employees -- with 20 sub-expectations, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, ensuring supply chain policies align with sustainability goals, and promoting sustainable lifestyle choices across their employee populations. 

But before companies attempt to embark on Ceres' thoughtful road to sustainability, they should first complete three exercises: assess their baseline environmental and social performance; analyze their corporate management and accountability structures and systems; and perform a materiality risk and opportunity analysis.