Christopher: Embedding Sustainability Successfully

The question of how to get the “biggest bang for the buck” regarding sustainability has been an ongoing discussion among business leaders for quite some time. Today, it is safe to say that sustainability best practices are not considered to be a management fad or flavor of the day. These best practices continue to be implemented by large and small companies and organizations alike, for both short-term efficiencies, as well as long-term value through avoided costs, reduced costs, and improved decision making. However, the most difficult question to answer is how best to effectively and successfully embed applied sustainability best practices into an organization or business to ensure short and long term superior performance for employees, shareholders, and stakeholders.

Recently, SustainAbility completed a report, Sustainability Incorporated – How to Integrate Sustainability into Business!  These sustainability integration best practices were developed from discussions and case studies with many global business leaders from a variety of industry and market sectors including; Unilever, Interface, BASF, Ford Motor, Novartis, Iron Mountain, Timberland, Novelis, Nedbank, Campbell Soup, Axzo Nobel, Sasol, and others. Five pathways for successful integration of applied sustainability best practices were identified. Without a doubt, there is the need for top management leadership, support, and commitment to sustainability as a key business function.  Sustainability cannot act as a “silo” business operation and it must be connected to all business functions and organizational departments.

  1. “Employ Business Model Thinking” – Sustainability should not be viewed as just a collection of business related activities and programs. Using business model thinking at the outset enables sustainability to be strategically viewed within all business operations. Mapping the entire supply chain for sustainability best practices is a great first step. Conducting an in-depth sustainability assessment, as well as SWOT analysis will help identify organizational capabilities, gaps, issue areas, opportunities, as well as define competencies which can be leveraged for future growth. Recently, Dow Chemical and DuPont announced a proposed merger based on business model thinking. Both companies have strengths in biomaterials, agricultural chemical businesses, as well as new clean disruptive technology platforms. 
  1. “Putting Materiality to Use” – Most companies today are conducting materiality assessments for their supply chain and raw material purchasing requirements. This type of assessment is being implemented to determine if any hazardous or harmful raw materials or products are being consumed or used within business operations. Many times companies are raising the bar on their own, along with other industry partners, rather than waiting for compliance or regulatory policies to be put in place. The furniture industry is a great example of an industry that has worked in conjunction with the EPA and others in determining a list of 55 chemicals of concern not to use during manufacturing or production. Today, the furniture industry is shifting to the use of sustainable and green chemistry and engineering, being promulgated by the American Chemical Society and others. Other industry sectors are also addressing conflict minerals as well in supply chain operations. 
  1. “Applying a Sustainability Lens to Products and Services” – Today, many industry leaders from businesses, cities and municipalities, to colleges and universities are applying the “triple bottom line” (TBL) lens of improved environmental, social, and economic impact for their goods and services used. There are many sustainability processes that can be used to assist in this development including Design Thinking, Design for the Environment (DfE), Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), and Lean Manufacturing. Cascade Engineering, the City of Grand Rapids, higher education, and many others including members of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Local First are applying the “lens of sustainability” to their business operations.
  1. “Tapping into Culture” – Many times we forget that to fully embed and successfully integrate sustainability, it will be necessary to go beyond just the use of TBL sustainability best practices within an organization or business enterprise. There is a critical 4th leg of sustainability – culture or a sense of place. Drawing upon corporate or organizational culture is most important to achieve leadership and excellence in sustainability. Keys to success include personal engagement, continuous improvement, open innovation, empowerment, and superior communications. Brewery Vivant is one of the most recognized companies that embrace sustainability through their pursuit of Benefit Corporation Certification (B Corp) status. Kris and Jason Spaulding, as owners, have achieved exemplary performance in sustainability and have been well recognized in the community. 
  1. “Leveraging Transparency” – Just like business reporting is important to shareholders, employees, and stakeholders, so is sustaining reporting as well, especially to the community in which organizations operate. Some of the best reports will have key performance indicators that measure economic, environmental, governance, and social impact areas. There are many templates that can be used to track and monitor sustainability performance. Amway issues an annual Corporate Citizenship Report that highlights their corporate responsibility, citizenship, and sustainability efforts on a global basis. Each year Amway has added additional areas to transparently report their global performance. The Kellogg Company also issues an annual Corporate Responsibility Report, highlighting their global initiatives.

These sustainability integration strategies can be applied by any business, organization, or enterprise. The marketplace now has well accepted sustainability best practice tools and processes that can be used to help you integrate sustainability successfully across all business functions to help achieve improved overall performance.

Norman Christopher
Director, Office of Sustainability Practices
Grand Valley State University
Author, Sustainability Demystified