How Executives Can Build a Corporate Culture of Sustainability
- January 17, 2023
Many companies' sustainability commitments include implementing net zero targets or plastic-free promises. This is great news, but knowing how to start can be difficult. The conversation around sustainability is evolving from awareness to action. Achieving sustainability commitments will require every part of the business, prompting organizations to shift significantly in what they prioritize and measure.
These sustainability discussions often start as a board-level dialogue designed to align with corporate objectives. Leaders often identify an ambitious goal around ‘what’ the company will do, such as reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, occasionally ‘how’ it will get accomplished and ‘who’ is responsible is left unclear. As a leader, you may be tasked with answering these questions for your department or company.
Getting started: answering the what, how, and who of sustainability
Sustainability commitments require a major cross-departmental team effort regardless of where the conversation starts, so you need to get your people on board. There are three actions leaders can take to effectively answer the ‘what,’ ‘how,’ and ‘who’ of organizational sustainability initiatives.
- Start with a materiality assessment to identify the most important issues. Recognize that what’s material to your company and your employees may be different. For example, organizations may prioritize reducing risks related to climate change, while their employees may be more concerned about safe working conditions. With this understanding, you can identify near- and long-term objectives and how to measure them to gain buy-in and support from the various stakeholders.
- Once you’ve identified and short-listed your stakeholders' top concerns, articulate how sustainability efforts will help meet corporate goals, not just new sustainability goals. For example, are customers more likely to select your company because of its environmentally friendly commitments? (That gets the sales team committed to the goal.) Is newfound efficiency helping to reduce operating costs? (That gets the finance team invested.) In the competition for talent, can you hire and retain more people because they want to work for a sustainable company? (That gets HR excited to participate.)
- Get creative about how you talk about the initiative's impact and report what it does for your stakeholders. There are many tools on the market to help companies track emissions data, for example. Look for tools that go beyond emissions to measure your various stakeholders’ priorities, such as hardware recycling or diversity metrics, and communicate results accordingly so those stakeholders see progress that matters to them.
Making sustainability stick: people will make or break sustainability efforts
No green initiative will be successful without buy-in and active support from the people in the organization. Sustainability is a broad topic that every employee can help support in some way, from recycling and reducing power consumption to creating an equitable and safe workplace and developing ideas for how clients can reduce their carbon footprint. The good news is there is no shortage of enthusiasm. Team members are often committed and passionate about supporting sustainability causes. But because it’s so far-reaching, action often requires a cultural and behavioral shift to get everyone focused on the same sustainability goals, which rarely happens without accountability.
Every employee working on the initiative — most of whom do not have sustainability in their title — needs to have clear performance goals tied to sustainability. Unfortunately, companies may discuss their sustainability efforts as a priority but measure their employees’ performance based on different, potentially conflicting priorities. For example, what is more likely to get accomplished if an organization is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, but its employees are measured on rapid expansion of facilities? Even the most well-intentioned employees will be motivated to do what it takes to get their bonus, which may put the company’s emissions reduction target at risk if their individual objectives aren’t aligned with the targets.
Aligning with purpose: maintaining a culture of sustainability
The size of this sustainability shift is comparable to the advent of the Internet and the waves of digital transformation. It’s hard to imagine anyone whose life and career didn’t change because of these seismic events. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to identify objectives, understand what to measure, and clarify how every employee can support ambitious sustainability goals.
In today’s workforce, employees are looking beyond their paycheck and benefits and seeking purpose-driven careers capable of making an impact. Sewing sustainability into the tapestry of your organizational culture enables leaders, teams, and enterprises to stand for something more than profits and a mission to bring about a brighter future for generations.