Owning sustainability, why the many should help the few
Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.
Sustainability managers have in many ways entered the mainstream. Their work is slowly entering established practice. Most significant organisations have adopted some kind of sustainability approach. However, there is still great variability in practice and sustainability managers are often hampered by resistance, apathy and misunderstanding.
With any (relatively) new approach or paradigm, you expect (beyond survival of the concept) uptake to follow a progression. Sustainability management (like any other business management concept) might be expected to follow a similar model of evolution. This has been seen in related fields, such as health and safety or quality management.
These can have a development path along the lines of:
Rejection/Resistance/Deflection > Compliance > Partial Adoption > Greater Adoption > Advocation > Transformation/Redefinition of Purpose/Evangelism
As the general acceptance and uptake of corporate sustainability has grown, we have seen a broad progression in adoption and maturity. However, most practice appears stuck in the middle, somewhere between compliance and greater adoption. There are still very few examples of companies taking a leading position in sustainability.
There are many examples of excellence in specific areas, but few companies are pursuing a transformative agenda at significant scale.
Performance is stuck in the middle
What does getting stuck in the middle look like at an organisation level?
- Little or no analysis of strategic context or apparent recognition that social and environmental issues will affect the business
- Greater focus upon charitable activities and staff volunteering than issues related to core business activities – those that should be considered as important or material
- Little evidence of use of standards or strategic step-by-step approaches to sustainability management
- Long-term ambition and targets are not clearly expressed
- Focus upon relevant but partial elements – e.g. carbon performance
- Focus upon compliance rather than opportunity, risk management and value creation
- None or few dedicated sustainability staff or relevant resources and structures for delivery
- Sustainability function is in/reports to a non-strategic part of the organisation
- Few sustainability commitments made publicly, sustainability communications lack strong rationale and/or are centred around isolated and relatively un-important messages and activities.
Sustainability managers – progress stalled?
Why does progression towards best practice and excellence appear to stall in the bulk of organisations? Generally, because sustainability management requires changes in attitude and practice and sustainability managers/professionals therefore face multiple challenges in driving adoption and performance across the organisation.
We find that practitioners still struggle with the overall challenge that sustainability or corporate responsibility is often seen as a separate or parallel priority to business as usual. Additionally, other challenges are more individual in nature.
- Lack of business case – sustainability managers may struggle with promoting sustainability in terms the wider business recognises. Understanding sustainability in terms of potential value foregone, risks managed, or efficiencies achieved can assist with the business case.
- Inappropriate focus – where sustainability responses concentrate on controlling operational risks (within the company) rather than on larger social and environmental issues and opportunities in the value chain, or where focus is upon issues which are minor rather than material (significant) company impacts & risk.
- Strategy and planning – where strategy is poorly developed or too tactical, or where there has been a lack of understanding that strategy implementation is just as important, and more difficult, than strategy development!
- Perceived helplessness – where huge issues (such as climate change, biodiversity loss or the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals) are much bigger than the company they affect and it has limited ability to make a significant contribution to solving it.
- Integration – sustainability management is frequently not integrated into core business strategy, planning and implementation.
- Differing time scales – there is often a mis-match between shorter-term business planning and investment cycles and the longer terms often needed for sustainability programmes.
- Leadership and management:
- Lack of support, training or mandate — little or no senior support for sustainability managers/practitioners a day-to-day, or a lack of understanding achieving sustainable change requires responsibility, authority and input to strategy.
- Ineffective leadership – where there are ambitious promises but inadequate follow-up.
- Middle management blockages – we often find that CEOs/Chairs may be on board with sustainability, but Business Unit Heads or other Senior Managers don’t ‘get’ sustainability or have little motivation to support it (e.g. their bonuses do not recognise or reflect progress in sustainability management).
INDIVIDUALLY RELATED CAUSES
- Control, influence and concern within organisations – sustainability managers are often tasked to achieve change without the ability to direct or mandate it. Their ability to be successful frequently lies in developing their skills and capability to influence other people and parts of the business.
- Professional skills and development – practitioners can often lack professional development plans, suitable training budgets or career development pathways.
From individual professionals to organisational capacity
So why does sustainability often struggle for influence in many organisations? It’s clearly a strategic commitment challenge – but underneath that its rooted not only in a conceptual misperception of value but also a range of other institutional challenges, including:
- fear of change
- failure to recognise the potential impacts of inaction
- a lack of institutional knowledge, skills and capacity.
The sustainability profession needs to work on all these challenges, building capacity and capability. But perhaps more importantly, sustainability management needs to be owned by the organisation, not by the individual(s) with sustainability manager in their job titles.
For sustainability managers, a focus upon creating and driving a culture of ownership and buy-in across their organisations is vital. Sustainability will thrive only when everyone has a role in delivering against sustainable strategy.
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