Jeff is CEO and a board member at JMJ, a global culture consulting and technology firm headquartered in Austin, Texas.
In my time as the CEO of a consulting firm, I’ve seen how sustainability is no longer optional for businesses; it has become imperative.
The world is closely watching how companies address environmental, social and governance challenges and opportunities. Especially in light of global commitments such as The Paris Agreement, any backtracking or greenwashing of corporate sustainability pledges can have serious consequences. Stakeholders are increasingly aware of businesses’ impact on the environment and society, and they are prepared to take action against those that fall short of their commitments.
In response to these pressures, I see leading companies taking a proactive approach and making sustainable practices a fundamental part of their operations. But this entails more than implementing a checklist of actions; it requires a culture that embraces sustainability across the entire organization.
This article explores the critical role of culture in driving sustainability and provides some practical advice using previous lessons from safety practices for organizations finding it challenging to deliver on their target.
Sustainability As A Cultural Challenge
In a 2021 study, Diana Coyle of Cambridge University pointed to a chasm between the warnings from analysts and media that sustainability is imperative and the implementation of the practices. She went on to say that sustainability is not just about meeting targets but also about cultural transformation. To drive this change, I believe C-level and CEO involvement and responsibility must be expanded, with leaders actively setting sustainability goals, being accountable for progress and engaging employees and customers.
Important Lessons From Safety Practices
Most organizations begin their journey by looking for quick wins, but going beyond these initial achievements to meet ambitious sustainability goals can feel daunting. A transformative shift in mindset, culture and practices is needed to make sustainable practices an integral part of a company’s DNA—much as safety has now become.
Most organizations will have already experienced some form of safety transformation, and this can provide valuable lessons for sustainability practices where, with some adjustments, the same philosophy, principles and approach can be applied.
Just as we have learned that safety requires more than guidelines and a manual, genuinely integrating sustainability into a company’s culture and operations goes much further than including aspirational statements in the annual report and high-level information on the website. Unfortunately, there is often a general lack of belief that the goals set for the next 10 to 15 years can be achieved. To overcome this disconnect and engage people at all levels, I believe that organizations can take an analytical approach to understanding the underlying issues.
A Practical Guidance To Create Culture Change
The first step I recommend to creating a culture change toward sustainability is to understand the company’s current position and what motivates its individuals. One practical approach is to use surveys, interviews and diagnostic tools that can provide detailed insights into how leadership’s commitment to sustainability is perceived.
Essential questions include: Do the company values embrace sustainability, and is there a clear and embedded sustainability strategy? Is there a roadmap supporting articulated outcomes, and is the approach aligned with a shared sense of direction and purpose? Are the publicly stated goals and targets reflective of the actual situation, and are leaders demonstrating their commitment to sustainability?
According to a study cited in ScienceDirect, only 0.2% of Fortune 500 companies have created techniques and tools to review and evaluate the progress of their actions toward pertinent SDGs, despite the fact that 22.8% of these companies have interacted with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. I think this highlights the significant gap between corporate goals and the ability to measure and track advancement.
By answering the questions and addressing this visibility gap, leadership can develop a culture change roadmap that includes setting measurable goals, communicating effectively, maintaining momentum and celebrating successes. Through these steps, sustainability can become an integral part of your company’s DNA, contributing to positive environmental, social and governance practices while improving the bottom line.
Commitment Comes From The Top
Two decades ago, many industries thought having some incidents and injuries was simply a cost of doing business. Today, that kind of mindset is unacceptable. The same goes for sustainability. A complacent “these things happen” attitude will not likely be tolerated by consumers and employees. I believe that your board, executives and managers must fully commit to a sustainable future and lead by example. Moreover, the workforce should clearly understand their sustainability-related roles and responsibilities.
Achieving success depends on a purposeful sustainability management system with comprehensive, accurate and meaningful measurement and metrics reporting. Sustainability goals should be included in the annual performance plan, and information from different areas, departments and disciplines should be used to promote improvements. These actions benefit society and offer clear business advantages, such as reduced costs, enhanced brand reputation and the ability to attract and retain top talent and investors.
To truly transform their business and positively impact our planet, I think it is imperative that companies take a multifaceted approach to sustainability. This entails incorporating innovative technologies and data analytics and making sustainability a part of everything they do. It requires an authentic commitment from leaders, effective collaboration with supply chain partners and meaningful engagement with employees and external stakeholders such as investors, customers and regulators.
By doing this, businesses can galvanize their organization behind the desire to promote a sustainable future, becoming more innovative and valuable to their stakeholders in the long run.
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