Achieving aggressive sustainability goals requires more than a strategy; sustainability leaders need to facilitate a culture change so that sustainable practices are part of a new normal.
These are exciting times for sustainability advocates. Entities around the world are adopting aggressive climate goals. Already 75 cities across the US have committed to 100% clean energy, for example. And 85% of S&P 500 companies published sustainability reports in 2017. More entities are increasingly adopting science-based goals that are increasingly ambitious.
More entities have set climate goals and those goals are more aggressive than ever before.
So, yes, these are exciting times. Coupled with the satisfaction of seeing organizations recognize the climate crisis and commit to real change, though, is certainly some anxiety. “How on earth will we achieve these metrics when we’re still struggling to get folks to recycle properly?”
The answer, of course, is that we have to do this differently—we have to achieve culture change rather than just appending a sustainability strategy onto the existing operations.
Culture Change vs Strategy
Peter Drucker observed that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and he was right. All of us have seen this in action: leadership embraces a trendy strategy around customer service or waste reduction or value maximization and there’s a bunch of meetings, new posters in the break room and then, then everyone goes back to doing things the way they’ve always done them—because that’s what people here do.
An organization’s culture is what people within the organization say and do. Culture is how people think about their work, their customers and the broader world. Culture includes rituals as well as the assumptions and beliefs that power daily practices.
Whereas its feasible to empower a small team to implement a strategy, the culture is about everyone. And that means changing culture involves engaging everyone.
Engaging vs Informing
To integrate sustainability into the culture—to make any shift in culture—requires engaging everyone. Hanging posters in the break room isn’t engagement—that’s information sharing (and not especially effective information sharing). While you can inform people via one-way communications, engagement is a dialogue—it’s two-way communications.
Key to engagement is meeting people where they are. Relative to sustainability this means starting with the issues that matter to the organization. Selling sustainability on environmental benefits in an organization that’s obsessed with quarterly earnings is silly—you are making the work harder than it has to be. If numbers drive the organization then sell sustainability on numbers. UK-based sustainability consultant Gareth Kane has a great analogy for this—he calls it Green Jujitsu, borrowing the martial arts concept of leveraging your opponents momentum for your gain. Instead of arguing against existing priorities, leverage them to reinforce the case for sustainability.
- If investor interests come first then talk about the growth in investor interest in environmental, social and governance issues. A recent analysis showed that 78% of the largest institutional investors looked at ESG data before investing. More, Bloomberg recently reported that ESG assets increased 37% in 2017 due to growing demand. A company that prioritizes investor interests would be prudent to prioritize sustainability.
- If customers interests are the priority, talk about the data showing that 8 in 10 consumers expect companies to adopt sustainable practices and that 66% of consumers will pay more for products that are sustainable.
- If attracting and retaining talent is the priority then share that 88% of millennials report that they want to work for a company where they can be part of sustainability efforts.
- If the key priority is supply chain logistics then talk about how climate change creates new supply chain risks and that sustainability efforts can mitigate those risks.
Identify the organization’s priorities and engage in a dialogue that connects sustainability to those priorities—so that you can build a story around how sustainable practices help the organization fulfill its vision.
Once you’ve identified the appropriate leverage points you can articulate how sustainability contributes to organizational success. Then of course you need to tell that story to both leadership and rank and file staff.
As part of the telling you should be providing updates on the organization’s progress. And you should showcase the staff who are helping make that progress possible. Catch people doing the right things and celebrate the heck out of their efforts. Share a photo of someone composting in the cafeteria, staff carpooling to a meeting or (even better) video conferencing. Showcase how people are living the sustainability priorities—showcase actions to make those actions viral.
Equally important, mitigate inconsistencies in your story. It’s inevitable that there will be some inconsistencies. The organization sets an aggressive goal for reducing water consumption and staff point out that there’s a faucet that’s been dripping for months on the second floor. Address the inconsistencies! Yes, the faucets use might well be trivial compared to other water usage but if staff see it every day it’s undermining your story. So create an environment where people are comfortable reporting inconsistencies and address these issues quickly to reinforce that the commitment is real, that leadership is serious about these objectives.
In short, you need to nurture your story so it grows. Celebrating successes is a way to reinforce the story, as is addressing any inconsistencies. Ultimately your aim should be an organization where rank and file staff tell the sustainability story to each other—that it becomes part of how people think and act…part of the culture.
Integrating sustainability into an organization’s culture is harder than tacking a strategy onto existing priorities. If you want to achieve really aggressive goals, though, it’s the best path forward.
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