Modern business goes beyond profit, developing a sustainability program is now crucial to future success. Ideas like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) state that companies have a responsibility to their employees, the communities in which they work, and the environment as well as their yield. Not only is this the right thing to do, but ESG legislation (Environmental, Social, and Governance) in the United States, European Union, and beyond is making such practices a requirement. Failure to implement a sustainability program within your company could result in fines or other consequences.
Beyond regulation, consumers and investors also demand that the companies they support showcase their commitment to sustainability. In fact, half of American consumers rank sustainability as one of their top five decision drivers when choosing a product or business. Modern consumers are savvy, and they seek to support businesses that transparently align with their values. However, a company can no longer make empty promises and small changes to gain approval. Their approaches need to be authentic, comprehensive, and effective.
But, what is a sustainability program, and how can you successfully implement one? Let’s take a look.
Step 1: Understanding Sustainability
In order to develop an effective sustainability program, you must first understand what exactly sustainability is. The United Nations Brundtland Commission defines sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Following this definition, a corporate sustainability program should include changes that benefit the environment and society while ensuring continued economic success. Therefore, as you develop your sustainability program, you need to make certain that it aligns with your stakeholders while making a real impact. For example, if you find that your customers and employees care the most about your company’s carbon footprint, this should be an area of focus in your sustainability strategy.
However, a sustainability program can’t merely focus on a single problem. While it is unreasonable to expect such a program to be fully comprehensive, it should still improve as many areas as possible. Additionally, it shouldn’t simply exist as a piece of your company’s operations. Truly sustainable companies will incorporate sustainability and CSR as part of their core values. Sustainability is more than a way to score points among consumers and investors. It’s a mindset that must be applied at all levels.
As you strategize and implement your sustainability programs, you should also provide training and educational programs to your employees to encourage them along this journey with you. This will help build that sustainability mindset within your company.
What is the purpose of a sustainability program?
Sustainability programs exist to help companies minimize their negative impacts, both environmentally and socially, while improving their economic success. Ideally, effective sustainability programs will benefit local communities, improve the lives of workers and employees (both internally and along supply chains), preserve resources, and increase profit. Although there will likely be upfront costs associated with such programs, a well-implemented strategy should result in growth through savings, customer attraction, and lower risk assessment from investors.
What should be included in a sustainability program?
While environmental issues tend to lead conversations surrounding sustainability, the preservation of resources and reduction of emissions are not the only aspects of a thorough sustainability strategy. There are three main pillars on which you should focus when developing a sustainability program: Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG).
- Environment: Perhaps self-explanatory, this pillar covers environmental concerns, including carbon emissions, plastic waste, materials sourcing, and more.
- Social: This covers things like human rights, labor laws, and your impact on local communities.
- Governance: The final pillar refers to your internal operations. Here, you’ll consider things such as employee satisfaction, potential corruption, and company leadership.
Want to know where your business stands? Get your sustainability scorecard with our quiz:
What are the benefits of a good sustainability program?
A solid sustainability program will improve your company’s reputation, attract investors, and ultimately increase profits all while ensuring responsible use of precious resources. It can do so in a number of ways, but here are some key areas where companies with excellent sustainability programs have seen benefits.
- Lower energy costs. By switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs, investing in clean energy, and other energy-reduction strategies, your company can enjoy a much smaller energy bill.
- Higher profits through waste reduction. In fact, zero and low-waste policies can help improve profits associated with operations by as much as 60%.
- Attract high-quality employees. Fast Company found that more than 70% of employees surveyed at large U.S. companies are more likely to work for a company with a strong ESG agenda. The same survey discovered that 10% of Millennial workers would even take a pay cut of up to $10,000 to work for a more sustainable company, and Gen Z certainly cares about such things, too.
- Improve customer loyalty. Not only do modern consumers consider a company’s impact before supporting them, a 2020 study by IBM found that 70% of consumers would be willing to pay up to 35% more for a product from a company with proven sustainability standards.
- Become industry leaders. According to Forbes, 90% of business leaders think that sustainability is important. However, only 60% of the companies that those same business leaders are in charge of carry sustainability programs. ESG needs leaders to push it forward, and your company can fill that gap.
- Stay ahead of legislation. According to UNEP, there has been a 38-fold increase in environmental regulation since 1972 with more to come. By enacting effective sustainability strategies now, you can keep your company ahead of legislation so that you aren’t left scrambling later.
Step 2: Assess organizational readiness
Now that you know what sustainability is, you can begin the strategizing process. To create an environmental sustainability program that works for your business, you must first figure out where you currently stand. Ideally, this will be done by a trustworthy third party so that the audit is completed by experts in an unbiased manner. However, if your company is small or does not have the budget to invest in an auditing service, it can be done internally.
Audits can be performed in a number of ways.
- Have trusted external entities, like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), analyze different areas of your environmental impact—like your carbon emissions, plastic footprint, water use, etc.—which they will then quantify so that you can better understand where your greatest impact lies.
- Put out an employee survey to see how your employees view your impact and areas that could be improved.
- Receive an ESG report from a trusted entity, like MSCI, to ascertain where your greatest risk areas are.
You can use these methods to then ascertain the areas where you carry the greatest impact. For example, if your carbon emissions come back higher than they should be, then this is the area where you should focus your strategies.
Once you’ve determined your current ESG performance, you need to identify the key stakeholders—business leaders, managers, employees, etc.—who are best able to help your company address the areas that need improvement. They will be the ones you will lean upon in order to achieve your sustainability goals.
Step 3: Set sustainability goals
So, you’ve got your areas that could use improvement, and you’ve gathered together your key stakeholders. Now it’s time to set your sustainability goals, or sustainability key performance indicators (KPIs). Sustainability KPIs should include clear and quantifiable outcomes rather than vague desires. Make sure that these are reasonable. While it would be wonderful to develop a fully comprehensive strategy, this is not always feasible. Instead, choose key areas where you’ll see the greatest impact. For example, if your ESG reports show that you have a significant carbon footprint above all other areas of impact, then this should be your primary focus as you create your sustainability strategy.
You should also choose areas that align with your organizational values and brand. While sustainability trends should be avoided (e.g. the plastic straw bandwagon of 2018) in favor of effective approaches, your company should seek that sweet spot between consumer demand and well-founded objectives. For example, work toward minimizing all plastic waste rather than simply eliminating plastic straws.
As you develop your goals, include your key stakeholders in the decision-making process. Reach out to your managers and employees to get their opinions on where you can do better. They are the ones who already know the details of how your business is run, and they’ll be able to see areas that are currently ineffective.
Step 4: Formulate a sustainability strategy
In order to achieve your goals, you must develop a multi-year approach with many milestones in between. This plan should include multiple audits that occur annually to ensure that you stay on track for success. For example, if you are working to reduce GHG emissions, you should set targets on an annual basis that will ultimately achieve five-year goals. This way, you can track your progress and ensure that you stay on target.
Your sustainability strategy should take into account your company’s current standing and desired goals. From here, you can create a strategy that includes milestones that help you achieve your larger goals. This way, you can ensure that you stay on track, even with a multi-year strategy.
As you create your strategy, consider ways to engage your employees, and include your supply chains in your goals. Remember when developing a sustainability program ESG goes beyond internal change. You must analyze all areas of your carbon footprint, including your suppliers.
Step 5: Implement sustainability initiatives
A plan is only as good as its implementation. Once your plan is in place, it’s time to strategize the best ways to make it happen.
There are lots of different types of sustainability initiatives that you can create. Start with an action plan that includes clear milestones. Achieving big sustainability goals is a step-by-step process, and including many milestones in your action plan will ensure that you stay on track.
Your plan should also be broken up into different responsibilities. Include your stakeholders by putting different departments and teams in charge of smaller goals. Not only will this create a team effort in achieving sustainability goals, but it will also make overall goals much more attainable.
Finally, you must continue to monitor and evaluate your progress as you go along. If you find that you are falling behind schedule, regroup and strategize ways to catch up to your initial goal. Make sure that you conduct a sustainability audit at least once a year to keep up with your progress.
Step 6: Engage stakeholders
Achieving sustainability goals is a team effort. By engaging employees, customers, and the communities in which your company works, you can create excitement surrounding your sustainability plan, improve your customer loyalty through marketing your efforts, and encourage others to be more sustainable, too, through partnerships and collaborations. You can even include customers by offering services like a carbon neutral shopping cart or a sustainability app.
Gain customer support by showcasing your efforts in your marketing strategy. Modern customers seek transparency, so be genuine in your marketing efforts. If your sustainability strategy doesn’t quite hit the mark, be honest about it. Use missteps as an opportunity to change and educate. Customers appreciate authenticity above all else, and they tend to be forgiving as long as you are honest.
By building partnerships and collaborations, you can also become a sustainability leader. Connect with those in your circle, and bring them along your sustainability journey, too. The more people get involved in greater sustainability goals, the better.
Step 7: Overcome challenges
As with everything, there will be challenges throughout your sustainability journey. Do your best to anticipate difficulties and develop protocols to address them before they happen. However, not everything can be foreseen, and you should put procedures into place to create new strategies for challenges that you might not predict.
When creating your budget, include a buffer zone to enable your company to address unanticipated challenges. As you convince business leaders to invest in such measures, remind them that sustainability policies are designed to improve profits in the long run. The more that they invest now, the greater the profit they will see later.
Your sustainability program should also keep future legislation in mind. Don’t simply address the imminent regulation changes. Do your best to determine the future of sustainability regulation and implement those changes within your strategy.
Some common challenges that face sustainability programs are:
- Lack of funds
- Effectively telling your sustainability story
- Finding the right leaders for this type of project
Step 8: Measure the impact
The only way that you can know if your sustainability program is truly effective is to measure its impact. This is why your goals should be quantifiable—you must be able to ascertain exactly what your company’s new impact is. This may include your water usage, waste production, carbon footprint, and more.
Tracking your impact goes beyond the environment. When developing a sustainability program you must also measure your social and economic outcomes, too. This is where investing in a third-party ESG reporting company may come in handy. They will be able to provide scores in multiple areas of operation, providing you with objective data surrounding your company’s impact.
As you measure your successes, you should communicate them with your stakeholders and customers. This will improve your reputation and help your company grow even further.
Developing a sustainability program for your company is more than an ethical thing to do. Current and upcoming ESG legislation will require it. However, contrary to popular belief, the pursuit of more sustainable practices can actually help your profits grow. If your company isn’t already investing in ESG, it must start today.