Five essentials to embedding sustainability

written by Carol Adams

There is no ‘one size fits all’ model when it comes to embedding sustainability.

It depends on your organisation – its structure, its culture, its mission and its people.

To really embed sustainability – to be an organisation which people are proud to work for and want buy from – there are a few things you need to think about and put in place.

You may need some help to work out where to start. It will depend on the answers to these questions and more. What are your key drivers for embedding sustainability? Who already gets it and who still needs to be convinced? Is there any grass roots activity which will help get senior manager buy in? Do you need data to convince the CFO? How good are your internal processes? What do your stakeholders think? Are people used to collaborating across functional boundaries? These are some of the questions to think about in determining your approach.

1. CEO leadership, Board oversight and proactive leadership

If the CEO doesn’t think it’s important for the business, it won’t happen. S/he needs to keep saying it is important and acknowledging achievements.
Senior managers need to know that the Board is incorporating sustainability in its vision and strategy and monitoring performance against plans and targets.
Embedding sustainability requires change, new know-how and collaboration across functions. Somebody needs to be charged with making this happen.

2. A business case in CFO language

The CFO can be a ‘route in’ to encourage organisational change. If the CFO believes it’s good for business, it’s much more likely to happen – and the converse is also true.

Accounting and reporting processes make visible what can be measured – especially if a monetary value is attached. KPIs included in monthly reports get managed.

CFOs think about cost savings, increased market share, improved profit margins, return on investment, reputation risk, financial risk and regulation. Speak their language and they can help develop systems and processes and make sustainability performance visible.

3. Engage, communicate and enthuse

You can’t embed sustainability without significant change. As with any change management process consistent communication and a shared understanding is vital. There is a role for everyone. Change can be led from many different levels and parts of the organisation and it can be fun. Embedding sustainability is a change with a purpose many will be proud of.

Make a space for ideas to emerge and feedback to be heard – from your staff, your customers and other key stakeholders.

4. Vision, strategy, goals, KPIs, data, targets, plans and risks

Sustainability needs to be part of your shared organisational vision, your mainstream strategy and plans. You need to set goals, determine what your material impacts are, develop KPIs, collect data and set targets.

If you haven’t engaged with stakeholders and identified your material impacts, you won’t know what your key risks are.
You will find data which has not previously been collected or managed and there are likely to be material impacts for which you don’t yet have data.

5. Senior management buy in

Involve your senior managers in the process. Give them ownership.

There is a role for every area of the organisation and most will want to be involved – but they will need to develop new skills and process and they are already busy. Some will need to be led. Others will be leading their own initiatives which will need their boss’s support to work.

Change on this scale requires a catalyst. Some organisations wait until it becomes a matter of survival – for example, as a result of an activist campaign or bad press. Others make a start and are encouraged and guided to do more by their staff, other stakeholders and consultants.

Carol provides advisory services on these and other strategic, process and reporting issues.  

Further reading:

Adams CA and McNicholas P (2007) Making a difference: sustainability reporting, accountability and organisational change Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 20(3): 382–402.

Adams CA and Frost G (2008) Integrating sustainability reporting into management practices Accounting Forum 32(4): 288–302.

Adams CA and Frost G (2006) CSR Reporting Financial Management, June: 34–36.

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