Sustainability requires a team effort!   Leave a comment

At its basic level, to be sustainable means to remain in existence. Environmental problems – internal and external – are a threat to the daily operations and longevity of many businesses:

  • Banning the use of certain materials or products due to toxicity levels;
  • Increasing waste disposal costs;
  • Restricted access to essential inputs (eg. supplies of fresh water in times of drought);
  • The inability to obtain insurance due to substantial environmental risks;
  • Access to secure energy supplies at reasonable prices;
  • The need to address carbon pollution and the impacts of taxes / trading schemes to reduce emissions;
  • Lost sales as a result of environmental damage or negative public scrutiny;
  • And the list goes on…

To become more sustainable, enlightened business owners and managers are addressing their exposure to risks and searching for innovative ways to reduce the environmental impacts of their business. They are doing this by adapting products and services (or developing new ones), changing their organisational processes and structures, engaging their key stakeholders in dialogue, and guiding their business conduct and performance towards environmentally benign activities and away from environmentally damaging ones.

Like any major company policy, success relies on crucial buy-in from the top (the board, senior managers) in order to adjust old ways of thinking through the business. However, a shift to making decisions and operating in terms of the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and societal impact and performance takes some serious engagement work amongst the whole organisation.

An internal champion, acting alone, will not turn a company into a sustainable enterprise. Like any successful adventure in the workplace, it’s about different people coming together and working together effectively to drive the organisation forward.

However, driving different sustainability efforts forward can be a bit hit and miss. Firstly, an organisation needs to be absolutely clear on what it actually means by ‘sustainability’ because the word means different things to different people.

Does it mean only environmental sustainability, or a triple bottom line pursuit? Does it mean managing the company’s carbon footprint, greening its supply chain, or improving its internal systems and processes to improve efficiencies to reduce waste, water use and pollution and improve recycling rates? Does it mean developing better products and services to meet the increasing consumer demand for greener products? Does it mean educating consumers and the community about why its product is better than the one on the shelf alongside it by conducting an expensive and time-consuming life cycle analysis? Or is it all of the above? First and foremost, a business must have clear intent of what it’s trying to achieve, with measurable goals and timeframes.

This is probably a no-brainer, but efforts with the most enthusiasm behind them will typically succeed. Enthusiasm may often begin as casual conversations in the hallway that turns into informal meetings, and later evolves into formal meetings with defined issues on the agenda.

Causes gain momentum when positive interactions during meetings inspire wider participation and change how employees interpret and understand the issues in their workplace. Energising interactions develop not only among people who care about sustainability from the beginning, but quite often from people who are motivated by the energy they get from the process of working on an issue. People put their effort and creativity into topics they enjoy working on with colleagues.

If there isn’t widespread buy-in and support, employees won’t converge on a common focus. As a result, people become frustrated, the positive feedback loop stalls, and no definitive moves towards sustainability (however it’s defined) will occur.

Senior leaders must want change in order for it to happen, but without the support of the company as a whole, a challenge as ambiguous and daunting as sustainability will not move forward. Picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ is always a good place to begin, as is engaging an experienced consultancy to help embed sustainability into the fabric of the business.

Shane Gladigau

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