As sustainability moves into the mainstream of business practices, it becomes incumbent to organizations to take a good, hard look at what sustainability means to their organization and how best to take good strategic ideas and put these ideas into motion. Many sustainability programs are doomed from the start due to inadequate stakeholder funding, political support, or resource assigned to an initiative. Indeed, in today’s business settings outside very forward leading global Fortune 1000 companies, sustainability as a business practice is rarely a structured or well-governed affair, often occurring across functional areas in a “nights, weekends, and lunches” setting.
Nights and weekends make Danny a crazed man.
These scenarios often lead to dangerous morale depressions in the organization and failure to achieve benefits. Yet, particularly given “drains in the talent pool” in many organizations over the past two years, these disparate approaches have become commonplace. Worse still, as poor performance and business interruption became acceptable, management mindset is having trouble “turning the switch back on” as the recovery has gained steam.
Successful companies who drive successful sustainability programs are leaders for several reasons. First they treat sustainability as a competitive business strategy to reduce inputs and waste outputs, rather than as a simple exercise in compliance. While compliance may be a motivating factor to consider sustainable business practices in the first place, treating these business practices as an opportunity to alter the organization operating model to achieve net benefits sets leaders apart from laggards. A good example of this is in the area of sustainable procurement, where an initial rationale to reduce toxins and restricted materials may be the initial lever to consider sustainability. A strategic program, however, would consider major themes and leading to specific outcomes such as buying local, reducing inputs, and design for disassembly.
Second, successful companies know what sustainability means to them and have a good handle on what is both material and feasible inside their organizations. Feasible Options are options which are possible given the strategic direction and orientation of the organization and its stakeholders. Viable Options are feasible options which are implementable given the time, resource, and financial constraints. While many strategies are feasible, only through discussion, facilitation, and consensus can the organization arrive at viable options which have limited risk and which may be implemented.
The key is to discover with the organization what is material to successful outcomes in a sustainability program. Materiality refers to the relevance and importance of the particular strategies and objectives which apply to the organization given its development and position in the marketplace. A $100M annual not for profit organization will have a much different “lens” as to what they view as material to their sustainability program versus a $10B global passenger and cargo transportation air carrier.
Finally the core to full realization of a sustainable strategy is the ability to articulate the components of sustainability in a program plan, to assure the plan meets the objectives of the organization’s strategy. Once implemented successful organizations monitor the plan over time and make adjustments as events, context, and resources change. Sustainability not only impacts business practices inside the organization, but also transforms norms, habits, and behaviors of the employees and suppliers. Active change leadership paves the way for attaining goals, open-minded thinking, and practical applications of sustainable business practices.
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