How to Create a Sustainability Plan For Executives: 5 Key Considerations
By Fast Company Executive Board
You’ve probably already realized that sustainability is not an end in itself. Rather, it is an ongoing process of keeping watch on all factors of an enterprise. Identifying and adjusting sustainability goals to satisfy present needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs is easier said than done.
Consumers remain a key driving stakeholder behind sustainability initiatives, according to a recent Green Business Bureau report. Surveyed United States consumers reported taking a company’s social responsibility and environmental commitments into account when:
- Deciding which companies to support in their communities - 84%
- Choosing where to buy and what to buy - 80%
- Making product and services recommendations to others - 78%
- Deciding whether to work for a company - 79%
Prospective employees also frequently consider a company’s sustainability. It takes visionary leaders to successfully steer sustainability initiatives to produce exceptional results. This guide offers seven considerations for developing a sustainability strategy framework, company sustainability initiatives, transparency in sustainability reporting, and more.
1. Identify Areas for Improvement
A sustainability strategy can begin with small goals and changes that grow to include larger goals and incremental improvements after implementation. Starting with small changes can be the best way to get started.
For example, developing smarter water usage efforts in the offices and manufacturing/distribution areas of your company can provide a good starting point. Continue adding incremental changes as you move forward in developing a plan.
Focus on your internal processes and operations that need improvement is a good place to start in developing a framework. This can include energy efficiency, sustainable resource management, employee ride sharing, recycling, and alternative fuel and power sources. This is also a good way to help achieve employee buy-in through participation.
Next, it’s important to consider any snags in your supply chain that negatively affect your overall sustainability strategy efforts.
2. Ensure Sustainable Practices in Your Supply Chain
After you evaluate sustainability in your organization, you’ll also need to take a good look at the sustainability practices of your supply chain. Failing to do so can damage your company’s reputation; you risk mass media flagging your oversight as well as potential lawsuits.
It’s critical to know, for example, if your company is using components in the manufacturing process that were manufactured using child labor or raw materials that were obtained through unethical means. Do not conduct further business with any entities that your internal or external stakeholders would consider unacceptable.
The main components of a responsible supply chain management plan, according to the Greenbiz report, should include:
- Maintaining a code of conduct detailing what is expected from each supplier
- Establishing an investigation process for suspected supplier non-compliance with the established code using onsite visits, audits, or questionnaires
- Driving change improvement, including putting a complete halt on conducting business with suppliers who continue practices that don’t align with your code of conduct
- Enabling communication with other businesses in your industry to have a greater impact in supply chain responsibility.
It’s also important to keep transparency at the forefront of your sustainability strategy.
3. Make Reporting Transparency Your Guiding Principle
Transparency in sustainability reporting is critical to building trust with employees, stakeholders, and society as a whole. The importance of sustainability reporting was increasingly emphasized throughout the past decade as governments and societies voiced their concerns about influences that threatened social structures, the environment, and the economy.
What is Sustainability Reporting?
The key purpose of a sustainability report is to keep all internal and external stakeholders informed about questions they may have regarding various organizational practices that may affect sustainability. These include initiatives for internal improvements and extend throughout an organization or an industry’s supply chain. Reporting can typically include factors such as sustainability plan implementation status and results, human rights protections, and climate change adaptation.
The role of corporations in sustainability is evolving at a higher pace than in the previous century. Transparency in reporting and reporting in general has become more frequent due in part to movements such as Corporation 2020. The movement implores corporations to operate in a mode that creates positive benefits for society “as a whole, rather than just its shareholders.” That includes promoting companies to adopt corporate reporting practices.
Four main steps in the sustainability reporting process, according to non-profit organization, Saylor Academy, include:
- Defining performance goals and metrics - have an overall vision of why you want to integrate sustainability initiatives into your business operations
- Measuring performance - maintaining systematic, consistent data collection processes
- Evaluating performance - data compilation, analysis, and communicating insights into useful knowledge that can be disseminated
- Managing performance - leaders need to react to sustainability performance through planning, organization, controlling, and leading
Websites as a Reporting Framework
Annual reports, transparent product labeling, and corporate websites are a few examples of reporting frameworks.
Outdoor clothing retailer, Patagonia Inc., and other companies known for having long standing sustainability measures in place, frequently use their company websites as part of their sustainability reporting transparency efforts.
Patagonia’s How We’re Making Change webpage contains links to the company sustainability details, such as:
- Materials and environmental programs - environmental and animal welfare responsibility
- Social responsibility programs - ensuring products are produced under safe, fair, legal, and humane working conditions
- Where we do business - information about the company’s owned facilities and supply chain partners
4. Cultivate Employee and Customer Buy-In
Sustainability is a full-time, ongoing effort that requires an appointed leader to own and manage it. It’s a good opportunity to also include employee involvement in ongoing efforts to encourage buy-in and engagement. Companies that have active sustainability strategies report having high levels of employee engagement, according to the Greenbiz report.
It can also be important to include other stakeholders, especially your customers, in your efforts. You can do this by promoting their engagement by sharing your efforts on social media. Greenbiz reports that 61% of global consumers report having used social media to engage with businesses about issues pertaining to environmental and other sustainability concerns.
5. Stay on Top of Sustainability Trends
Sustainable business went mainstream in 2021, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article by the same name. It’s no longer a fringe initiative, and there is no going back to the days where profits reigned over all else, author Andrew Winston notes.
Sustainability is an agenda item for most business leaders. Most of the globe’s largest enterprises distribute a sustainability report and set sustainability goals. In excess of two thousand companies have set a science-based carbon target, Winston says.
Winston additionally notes that:
- Businesses are moving away from making incremental change improvements to “bolder, systemic approaches that create a net positive impact on the world.”
- ESG discussions are increasingly becoming commonplace in talks about sustainability. About a third of large public European companies have made a pledge to reach net zero by the year 2050. Managing climate and other ESG concerns is central to business value today.
- A gap between science and public policy creates an opportunity and responsibility for business to assume a larger role.
Sustainability is an ongoing process that requires adjustments, rethinking, and reeling at points along the way. When creating a sustainability plan, visionary leaders:
- Consider internal sustainability goals
- Look throughout your supply chain for potential issues
- Make reporting transparency a guiding principle
- Identify and allocate resources
- Consider global sustainability trends
- Confer with other peer leaders to gain and share insights on sustainability
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