sustainability program

How to Set Up a Corporate Sustainability Program: Part 1

sustainability-program1Sustainability is such a broad sweeping term that it can conjure up different ideas in each of us. We may all loosely agree it’s important to look after our environment and be socially responsible. But once you start talking about what makes a sustainable organisation and what to focus on, you quickly discover a seething mass of conflicting ideas, opinions, interests and priorities. Simply, a corporate sustainability program is a set of steps that gets your organisation to a point where it’s putting back more than it’s taking away. (We'll look at measurement criteria later). At the same time the organisation still needs to achieve its primary aims—turn a healthy profit, make great products, provide great services etc.

Sustainable or Slowly Unsustainable?

True sustainability is not just an exercise in reducing your carbon or waste footprint. Your organisation is either operating sustainably or it isn’t. A real sustainability program is about aiming far forward to a point where you actually have a positive impact on your environment and community. No matter how sparingly you use resources, they will eventually run out unless replenished, just like the upturned hour glass that empties grain by grain.

Drawing up a Program Launch Plan

Benjamin Franklin, a man who helped changed the world in some very big ways, warned—“By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail”. This is especially true for sustainability efforts. We recommend a program launch plan because at the outset there will many unknowns in terms of what you need to change or how and when to do it. A simple, reasonably well executed launch plan will prepare you for the journey ahead, giving you a clear map to follow and valuable resources you’ll to keep you on track when the going gets tough. In particular it will help you avoid uncoordinated random acts of “greenness”; it will make your efforts more effective, and it will improve your chances of meaningful success when the need for profit or other imperatives seem more pressing. At the outset we strongly suggest resisting any temptation to dive into complicated spreadsheets or make carbon and waste reduction projections. These come later. A program launch plan need not be a lengthy document. In fact, the more concise the better. It’s simply your check list of action steps needed to get things going.

Important first steps

Every organisation will have different requirements, but here are some important steps that your launch plan should cover:
  • Get clear on the why. For any organisation to host a thriving sustainability culture it’s vital that cultural and commercial values and goals are aligned from the top down. That means getting clear on the commercial imperatives and potential around sustainability issues and building them into strategic plans.There’s a widespread misconception that environmental and sustainability goals are deeply at odds with the need for income and profits. So unless sustainability and commercial goals are married together and the commercial vision is focused on a sustainable future, unconnected commercial goals will always take top priority.There’s no shortage of strong commercial reasons to aim high when it comes to sustainability. We’ll be taking a look at some of these in the next article.
  • Get Staff Buy In. Adopting and actually implementing new, higher standards is an exercise in organisational change. In the case of sustainability it will require wholehearted participation of the entire organisation; everyone from senior management down to your newest, most junior recruit. Ideally this should happen from day one. We’ll be looking at some ideas to get everyone on board in a later article.
  • Select a Sustainability Methodology / Reporting Standard. What do you actually mean by sustainability and what should your priorities be? As we mentioned at the start these topics are open to debate. Formal Sustainability Reporting Standards go a long way towards eliminating confusion by clearly defining otherwise grey areas.If you’re not yet familiar with Sustainability Reporting Standards and the organisations that support them you’ll learn a great deal about sustainability best practices from this process.The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Triple Bottom Line (3BL) and other organisations like then provide comprehensive sets of sustainability accounting standards for measuring impact, reporting and setting sustainability goals. They also provide extensive educational resources and a common language to help communicate and share values.
  • First Sustainability Audit. This is the part where you examine what you consume and produce to make an initial assessment of your biggest impacts. From here it will become clear what your priorities should be. We look at this in greater detail in a later article.
  • Create a Sustainability Action Plan. Having conducted your first sustainability audit you’ll be in a much better position to identify priorities and set goals. Hopefully, you’ll be able to identify some low, or no cost measures you can take to start making a difference right away. You’ll also want to track progress by scheduling periodic reports using your chosen Sustainability Reporting Methodology. We’ll be covering this in a later article.
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