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Improve: Step 3 of 3 in Sustainability Best Practice

Step 1 gave us the systems and processes needed to facilitate data collection and generate a sustainability report. Step 2 ensured we benchmarked our performance against that of our peers in order to understand both our absolute and relative performance. This brings us to Step 3 in the continuous process of reporting best practice: implementing and maintaining initiatives needed to improve performance. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for—the chance to generate ROI from an effort that, to this point, can feel like an exercise in self-admiration (or self-flagellation, depending on your viewpoint). It’s also the moment at which organizations tend to eject from the process of continuous improvement and fall into the trap of implementing what Dr. Robert Pojasek likes to call “random acts of sustainability”: one-time quick fixes to their sustainability deficiencies.

Beware—as it is with most easy fixes, you may find yourself returning to the well year after year looking for something else to help you gain an edge. This is not only expensive, it leaves your organization casting about for ad hoc solutions year after year, and justifying those expenditures every single time. Organizations engaged in random acts of sustainability live in an annual purgatory of rationalization, budgeting, approvals, and shifting baselines to get any sustainability initiative off the ground. As you might imagine, this is not a “sustainable” approach.

Defining sustainability

How to avoid random acts of sustainability? First, pause long enough to revisit your organization’s Mission, Vision and Core Values (MVCs). It may sound wonky, but every organization has them. Drag them out, pull them off the wall, grab them wherever they may sit, forlorn and neglected, and consider what they say. Is sustainability in there? I’ll bet you it is. Does your organization aspire to be around in 50 years? 100? Does it respect the rights of its workers, abide by the rule of law wherever it operates, value its stakeholders or desire to have a positive impact on its community? It probably doesn’t encourage frivolous waste and neglectful use of resources. So you’ll see sustainability either implied or explicitly stated in your MVCs (Coca-Cola provides a good example).

Now, think about all the ways your organization works, every day, to accomplish its goals as inspired by its MVCs. There is a sense of purpose. People have their roles and responsibilities. For example, the CEO shows up each day with an agenda, the Facilities Manager with a set of mechanical systems to inspect and the HR Administrator with a set of workplace criteria to enforce. Each person, as part of their job description and daily function, works towards the organization’s MVCs. So if sustainability is part of your MVCs, why is it something that gets bundled into an annual report, scraped together in a last minute initiative, or budgeted for ad hoc? That’s not the way any other aspects of an organization functions. Why is sustainability somehow different?

The reason sustainability gets treated differently, outside of or additive to normal business functions, is that people fail to understand or agree on what it actually means. Let’s fix that now. Here’s a definition I believe accurately captures the meaning of sustainability:

“Sustainability is the capability of an organization to transparently manage its responsibilities for environmental stewardship, social well-being, and economic prosperity over the long term while being accountable to its stakeholders.”

— Dr. Robert Pojasek

This is a powerful definition. It captures the concept of environmental, social and economic (ESG) responsibility—the three letters of the alphabet soup besides “CSR” most often used to stand in for sustainability—as well as the two other important concepts: longevity and stakeholder engagement. It is the addition of these last two aspects that make this such an effective definition. It is also what makes the idea of random acts of sustainability so incongruous with authentic sustainable development. By definition, an ad hoc approach to sustainability—an approach that treats sustainability as a phenomena up for discussion each year, or defines it in terms of isolated initiatives—is one that is not sustainable.

Systems thinking

So how do you ensure sustainability is embedded in the daily efforts of your organization? Swap out “ad hoc” initiatives in favor of a “systems thinking” approach to sustainability. That is to say, if your organization is driven by its MVCs, then the daily efforts of its agents—employees, volunteers, service providers—are going to reflect accordingly. If sustainability is not practiced despite being part of your MVCs, then there’s probably a disconnect between the understanding of what sustainability is and its role in your MVCs. I offer the above definition and suggest training and education is your first step in creating a sustainable organization. After all, if there’s understanding and agreement that sustainability is part of your MVCs, then the daily efforts of your agents will follow.

Rinse and repeat

To recap, here’s a short list of how to establish systems thinking and ensure sustainability is practiced systematically at your organization:

1.  Find your organization’s Mission, Vision and Core Values. See if sustainability is explicit or implicit in them.

  • If explicit, identify operations and procedures (such as everyday employee actions) that are incongruous to sustainability, i.e. don’t contribute to the environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities for your organization.
  • If implicit, introduce the definition of sustainability to your organization. Seek buy-in from top management and ensure consensus among the rank-and-file via training and education.

2.  Identify ongoing or proposed sustainability “initiatives.” Are they discrete, one-time quick fixes or indefinite practices and procedures?

  • If one-time, ad hoc programs, pause and evaluate their merits. Specifically look for solutions delivered by external service providers or leased technology solutions. Separate those things that are part of/owned by the organization and which are third-party solutions that you can’t own and derive sustained benefit from. Get rid of the ad hoc and invest in sustainable solutions.

3.  Create, embed and prioritize practices and procedures over off-the-shelf solutions. In other words, change behavior, don’t “buy” temporary behavioral change.

Fundamentally, stay focused on making your MVCs the wellspring of sustainable actions. So long as sustainability is embedded in and derives from your MVCs, it will be done by rote in the daily activities of every member of your organization—it’s just “part of the job.” The great benefit of all this is lower cost, less uncertainty and more consistent benefits from sustainability. After all, if sustainability is what you do as opposed to a commodity, you get to save yourself the pain and expense of having to buy it every year from a third party!