How Can Our Corporate Sustainability Efforts Do Better?

The New Year is a time to reflect over the progress we’ve made in the last year and prepare ourselves for the opportunities and challenges of the year ahead. With all of the uncertainty and volatility in our news cycle, it can be tough to narrow our focus. I find that setting simple, achievable goals helps make even the most “unsolvable” problems seem within reach.

With that in mind, I’d like to close out the past year and begin the new with a simple question: How can we do better in our sustainability efforts?

The Reality of Climate Change

In early October, a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) briefly dominated the news. The New York Times wrote that the IPCC report “Describes a Strong Risk of Climate Crisis as Early as 2040,” and that “avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’”

While our political structures and the scientific community are the places we turn for help when faced with news like this, the truth is that the business community also has a large responsibility and role to play. This is why it was disconcerting to hear that a recent study from Bain & Company found that only 4% of companies are meeting their sustainability goals. In fact, “nearly half of all sustainability programs are considered failures by the companies deploying them.” Clearly, we need to do better both at setting achievable goals and finding ways to follow through.

Creating Sustainable Business Practices

One of the most common reasons for this failure, as Bain explores, is the disconnect between business goals and sustainability goals. “If employees feel forced to choose between sustainability targets and business targets,” they write, “most choose business targets.” When business and sustainability feel like two competing targets, sustainability inevitably suffers. To counter this and other obstacles to implementing change, Bain lays out four guidelines:

Make a Public Commitment with Clear Targets

Taking your sustainability commitments public can feel risky. After all, what if you fall short? But sustainability leaders suggest that accountability is a powerful motivator across all levels of an organization. In addition, transparency allows for “an open dialogue and stakeholder feedback that (helps) the company meet its goals.”

Encourage Leadership to Set an Example

Bain research shows that the support of senior leadership is the single greatest factor that contributes to or detracts from the success of sustainability efforts. In fact, CEO’s may be the only people with the power to make vital decisions such as switching to more sustainable suppliers or eco-friendly materials. Without visible commitment from above, progress is unlikely.

Highlight the Business Case for Sustainability

Not only do consumers (especially Millennials) increasingly favor brands that are committed to environmental responsibility, as SustainableBrands reports, but sustainable practices can save company resources and money as well. Bain notes that Walmart’s first steps toward sustainability were to reduce packaging for shipping in trucks, which saved trees, money, and fuel. Highlighting the business case for sustainability doesn’t make your efforts less noble, it reinforces them.

Reshape Behavior with Accountability & Incentives

“Few companies hardwire sustainability into their organizations’ processes, accountability systems and incentives,” Bain finds. Those that do achieve systemic change that helps them reach their goals. Examples include linking a portion of bonuses to sustainability progress or even establishing an internal value for carbon so that departments that reduce their carbon cost receive cash back.

Make Sustainability A Priority

As we begin the New Year, let’s re-commit ourselves to making sustainability a priority. Our progress as business leaders is vital to the continued viability of the work that we do and the world that we create. The business community can set a powerful example, earn the trust and support of consumers, and take part in the worldwide transformation that the IPCC is calling for.

If we can make better progress towards setting and achieving our sustainability goals, we can make each new year brighter than the last.


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