Sustainability can be a contentious issue. It can polarise opinion or be diluted to an academic debate, depending upon personal views. Our challenge in the professional business environment however, is to determine the merit of commitment or the risk of inaction on sustainability. Personal opinions matter not. Nor does the strict definition of sustainability matter that much - so for the sake of brevity – lets be satisfied calling it ‘a means to achieve efficiency’.
If we take a moment to explore why sustainability matters, we will get to the issue of leadership with a clearer purpose. There are two sides of course, the threats and the opportunities. Starting with threats, the most common are;
- Disassociating with the changing expectations of customers and consumers (missing the boat on meeting needs/wants).
- Damaged business reputation (negative stakeholder outcomes).
- Becoming the story of the week/month/year in national media for all the wrong reasons.
On the upside, common opportunities include;
What to do
- Competitive differentiation or sameness. This depends entirely on the market conditions as to what is more attractive to do. If your competitors have acted on sustainability and are prospering, then you have to play catch up by being the same. If you are a peer leader and have done your research, then there may be an opportunity to differentiate successfully and appeal to sustainably sensitive commercial and consumer markets through differentiation.
- Improving the operational discipline of the organisation. It’s like getting a shot of high performance corporate DNA to drive the thinking, plans and actions across the organisation. It can inspire new products, innovation and give an organisation a 15 year energy boost.
- Financial efficiency. Reducing costs and growing profits by using fewer (renewable) resources more efficiently.
So if you haven’t already done something in this space, then where is the best place to start? Should it be with the Board through governance or with management through leadership? Again – it matters not, only that it starts where it has a chance to grow. Business leaders will acknowledge planning and execution is vital to achieving outcomes, yet not everything starts in such an ideal or structured manner. Sustainability is a case in point. Just look around your organisation and you’ll likely notice a number of practices and processes that aren’t documented or officially sanctioned but just exist because it makes sense. That’s the beginnings of sustainability at work.
What does the sustainability future hold?
Once the rationale to act has been accepted, what could organisations expect to occur in the next few years? While not a proven model, it could reasonably be expected that the path ahead for business and sustainability will most likely follow that of corporate safety. High-Viz vests, hard hats, safety glasses, barricades, behavioural observations, witches hats etc. are now conspicuous by their (rare) absences. It didn’t used to be that way. It was considered a ‘badge of honour’ to have two fingers missing if you were a fitter and turner until about the mid 1980’s. Then we had rules, we had legislation introduced, followed by training, followed by inspections and penalties, followed by recognitions and rewards, resulting in new behavioural norms. It became de rigour. Safety specialists nearly no longer exist. Safety is now considered to be a ‘brother’s keeper’ duty of all employees from shop floor to the board room.
Of course it begs the question “how long does it take to develop a corporate sustainability culture?” The following figure will help to answer that question, however it can happen faster for organisations who have correlated divers for improvement such as a ‘right to operate or licence’ concerns. The development of a sustainability culture evolves from ‘natural instincts’ (those logical undocumented processes that just make sense) to a ‘dependent’ state where rules drive behaviours, through an ‘independent’ state where personal acceptance and commitment occurs, and finally matures to an ‘interdependent’ stable state.
Plainly, early adapters do well. Westpac, Origin Energy and IAG are among the top 100 most sustainable companies globally. This is also reflected by reputation and by share price. Take a look at their digital sustainability footprint and the behaviours that matter can be clearly identified.
So what did they do? How did they lead on the topic of sustainability? Before we answer that question, it helps if we start with what leadership in this field isn’t. It’s not a program, a concept, an idea, a competition, a campaign, a road show roll out, a circus or a theme. It doesn’t involve posters, mouse mats, pens, tee shirts, caps, buttons, coffee cups, stickers or screen savers. So what’s left?
Well plenty actually. Real leadership occurs through behaviour, specifically the behaviour of senior staff in common situations. Take for instance a CEO’s casual walk from the business office to the factory floor. The CEO notices there is a piece of rubbish on the ground just inside the factory entrance. If he picks it up and places it in a bin - the standard has been set for personal responsibility. That action has now become a platform for sustainable leadership simply because it’s the responsible thing to do. (The rubbish could become a safety issue or end up in a storm water drain or water catchment area, or be a poor reflection of general housekeeping standards to staff, contractors and visitors). This is ‘felt’ leadership.
Genuine ‘felt’ leadership has the power to reform organisations by taking a high value, societally important platform (such as sustainability) and allowing it to become the prime driver for improvement and performance. To make the most of any behavioural leadership opportunity – either by your own action, or by the observation of others - and this is how they did it. For every sustainable action you perform or observe:
Some simple practices to make a start
- Keep it simple
- Repeat it often
- Make it visible
- Acknowledge it personally
There are a lot of things organisations can do to make a start, and many start locally with simple practices or stand-alone initiatives. Organisations can make a strong start in the sustainability space by observing 3 main areas;
1. Capture all current sustainability initiatives. Formalise a policy. Set performance targets and work out how to measure & report them. Engage staff by working those targets into their job functions and accountabilities. Integrate sustainability strategies into the business planning processes.
2. Collaborate like crazy to form alliances that develop sustainable service/product offerings based on measured efficiencies.
3. Communicate your shared sustainability commitments to all your stakeholders so they can engage with the wider societal purpose of being sustainable & environmentally responsible.
Of the many impactful quotes that have been spoken by American Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the one that best makes sense of this topic is .. “Never underestimate the leverage that a worthwhile societal cause can produce in the marketplace … and being sustainable directly affects every individual who is – or will ever reside on this planet.”
Of course, Al Gore wasn’t the first one to promote the value of societal causes in the corporate market. It was Milton Friedman who intoned “Companies that do good, also do well”. His dictum is fresher and more relevant today than when it was first espoused.
: Clive Blunt, Principal | GreenBizCheck Sydney & Central Coast
M 0447 774 477
Where to go for help
, NSW’s sustainability partner, is a global technology-based environmental certification program for business.
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Through the Member Benefits Program NSW Business Chamber is working with GreenBizCheck a world leader in sustainability certification, to deliver a cost effective way to make your business more efficient and combat rising energy prices.
Sustainable business practices improve your bottom line through operational cost savings, as well as attract the growing number of environmentally conscious buyers.
Sustainability certification is now required for many government tenders and increasingly required in the private sector as well.
GreenBizCheck certification provides a comprehensive online assessment and an action-oriented report.
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Reviewed June 2013