Making sustainability live in your organization


Most executives I speak with acknowledge sustainability’s strategic imperative. A few of them have understood the transformational impact of sustainability and have moved boldly to realign their operations and cultures in order to reap significant business value. This value creation includes tangible outcomes such as improved brand image and supply chain efficiencies as well as intangible benefits like enhanced employee morale and greater appeal to new recruits.   While the majority of organizations have similar ambitious goals, many are unclear how to turn intent into results.

Recently, MIT’s Sloan Management Review looked at how companies were responding to the emergence of sustainability as a mainstream business driver. The study found that most organizations fall into one of two groups: a select group of embracers and the masses of cautious adopters.  Embracers such as GE, Unilever, Walmart, P&G and SAP recognized early that they can leverage sustainability strategically to outflank competition, drive brand differentiation and revitalize supply chains. To bring this vision into action, the embracers quickly integrated sustainability strategies and practices into the core of their business and organizational models. The results have been impressive:  enhanced corporate reputations, significant supply chain savings, higher product margins and a lower environmental footprint .  

On the other hand, the cautious adopters have been more reactive and timid.  They see sustainability as important but within the context of efficiency gains and risk management.  In their planning, sustainability is pursued as a series of tactical initiatives executed within their current organizational model.  In most cases, results have been modest with little appreciable change in competitive position.  Not surprisingly, cautious adopters will be challenged to overtake the embracers as long as they continue to treat sustainability in such an incremental fashion.

Interestingly, capital spending was not a barrier to action.  Despite recent economic and political uncertainty, 60% of surveyed firms reported increasing their 2010 sustainability investments.  What then is holding back most companies?

To drive sustainability, executives need to change the way they do business.  The implementation strategies of embracers offer a number of lessons, including: 

Move early even if there is incomplete information

Brian Walker, CEO of sustainability-leader Herman Miller furniture believes that many sustainability decisions “can’t be reduced simply to a formula or financial return…it requires a bit of instinct, a gut feeling of where you want to go.” In most industries, there are sufficient best practices and case studies to help firms move forward with plans that improve sustainability competitiveness.

Balance a long term vision with concrete short term wins

While long term success favours the ambitious, the reality in most organizations is that short term project wins are needed to generate operational experience and catalyze change.  One IT CEO I worked with refused to implement a large scale sustainability initiative until the firm had garnered sufficient learnings from a couple of pilot programs. 

Integrate sustainability into the organizational structure and operations

Sustainability must be woven into the fabric of the organization and not siloed within a specific department.  For example, GE and Nike translated their bold sustainability mandate directly into their operating units, practices and cultures.  Santiago Gowland, Unilever’s VP of Brand and Corporate Responsibility, says that his company views sustainability as a key business growth lever, treated at the same level as HR, Marketing and Supply Chain Management. For Unilever, sustainability is a new way of doing business.

Leverage top down and bottom up commitment

While getting a strong mandate from the Executive Team and Board is crucial, much of the early effort and ideas must come from the lower ranks.  One firm I worked with gained environmental leadership in their industry mainly through the efforts of a highly motivated, cross functional volunteer committee of low and middle level employees.

Make sustainability integral to key product, service and supply chain decisions

Inputting sustainability criteria into decision making and operational analysis is essential for developing a business case and gaining external compliance.  Companies like SAP and Walmart have driven sustainability savings and compliance using tools like Product Life Cycle Analysis, which look for opportunities to reduce environmental impact while generating significant cost savings.

Successfully deploying sustainability strategies requires more than lip service.  As well as putting their money where their mouths are, practical executives will seek to embed sustainability practices and beliefs within their companies.

For more information on services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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