The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to change the planet in ways that we couldn’t imaginable just a few months ago. With the climate crisis temporarily knocked off the front pages, there may be a silver lining in the unparalleled economic decline that has been a casualty of the measures enacted in combatting the virus. An opportunity now presents itself to think about how to build greener and more sustainable economies when economic activity returns.
At present, both approach and commitment to sustainability from business varies wildly. Many companies now take on board the language of sustainability, if only for PR purposes, with most adopting the principle to be, ‘less bad’, reducing emissions, decreasing resources or tackling poor working conditions in supply chains. But it is also the case that very few companies have committed to contribute to a sustainable society through integration of sustainable principles such as the circular economy into their core business strategy, with the throwaway culture still the mainstay of many business models from fashion and food to technology and household appliance industries.
The need for a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero and an end to the plundering of the earth’s resources has not ended because we are concentrated on the current pandemic.
What role can individuals within organisations play in truly achieving a more profound change?
A recent study exploring sustainability in organisations, asked 44 heads of sustainability at businesses around the world, how could just one person help turn what has been described as a traumatic period in human history, into one that upcoming generations will benefit from, and fashion a more sustainable world?
Three approaches to sustainability
The research found that those surveyed adopted three discrete approaches: assimilation, mobilisation, and transition. Each one of these approaches is stamped by distinct micro-strategies individuals employed to upscale sustainability across their company.
The assimilation approach. This focuses simply on following existing organisational mentality concentrated on profit: scrutinising how sustainability might contribute to efficiencies, costs savings, or sales. With the assimilation approach, sustainability stayed peripheral to the organisation’s principal strategy.
Leaders who adopted the mobilisation approach also continue to conform to an existing mind-set in many ways, but also leveraged ‘pockets’ of the organisation, such as ‘warming up’ particular senior executives, stimulating interested departments such as R&D (Research and Development) or instigating pilot projects around sustainability. These achieved greater integration on sustainability when compared with the assimilation approach, but did not bring about wholesale transformation.
Those implementing a transition approach as with the others, continued to obey some elements of the existing mind-set while leveraging specific pockets but also focused on moulding processes, policies, and attitudes towards principles of sustainability. They achieved this through organisation-wide awareness, training, communication and focussed recruitment. This approach secured a much higher level of integration on sustainability, ensuring ‘green’ became a central element of the business model, effecting key decision making and future company direction, in other words, it became mainstream.
Patterns of progression
Some wove complexity into their approach as they developed, beginning with simply conforming to the existing beliefs in the assimilation approach, adding leveraging, before shaping to actually change facets of the organisation for example, incentives for bonuses or promotion, to transform this into the transitional approach, creating a pattern of progression through the three approaches.
While assimilation may appear apathetic, it can be seen as an important first step for an individual to gain, ‘insider’, standing to help a sustainability strategy gain credibility within a business. The importance of this is to demonstrate that sustainability leaders need a long-term strategy to achieve long-lasting integration.
Other factors were identified that enabled individuals to progress, such as the support of senior leadership which, when absent, thwarted progress.
To advance beyond an assimilation approach, to a transition one, the introduction of outside drivers and influences was critical. These can include highlighting competitor actions or strategies or consumer expectations. Progression beyond a mobilisation approach i.e. embedding sustainability into internal policies and metrics become the focus, including elements such as such as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or recruitment expectations.
Lessons for leaders on sustainability
The research concluded that assimilating sustainability into the strategic core of a business is a long-term undertaking; one that required careful, tactical planning. buy-in from senior leadership throughout the full process, with the development and maintenance of their support and commitment the primary and ongoing focal points.
Introducing drivers from the external environment was also found to be key; sustainability leaders should always be on the lookout for ways to bring rival behaviour or consumer expectations into play and not be afraid to opportunistically embrace them.
The vitality of any successful transformation will often depend on Rates of Return, balancing internal relationships utilising policies and metrics, and working with Finance or HR departments on recruitment, performance, expectations and remuneration.
The post-coronavirus world may unlock the door to a number of discussions on mainstreaming sustainability in business and the research provides a map for those perceptive enough to take advantage of this and to see business become a serious supporter of a more just and sustainable world.
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