Six-Step Strategy for Corporate Sustainability

June 18, 2018

Despite the growing presence of sustainability practices in business, many companies overlook the hidden value of a formal, iterative approach to corporate responsibility. Apply this six-step process to your overall business strategy and unlock the power of sustainability-based management.

Sustainability is changing boardroom conversations and driving companies to think and behave in new ways. The challenge for most is bridging the gap between the desire to be socially and environmentally responsible and the implementation of specific strategies that uphold these principles while still driving growth.

Sustainability in Six Steps

Once relegated to one-off “green” initiatives like recycling programs or community projects, sustainability is now valued as an integral part of an overall business discipline. The effectiveness of such a strategy lies in its application across all company functions and its capability for continuous improvement. Follow these six steps to transform your business plan into a sustainability-based strategy.

1. Assess Stakeholders. Identify those groups that are impacted by your brand and business activities, either directly or indirectly. Expand your search to embrace nontraditional stakeholders, including future generations. Apply a broad lens to consider the social and environmental impact of your product, services, or processes. Think about how others are affected by the manufacturing of the supplies you use, by your own processes, and by the lifecycle of your product. Engage with these various groups to develop a detailed description of their current and future needs and expectations.

2. Set Objectives. Incorporate stakeholder expectations into a broad policy statement that articulates a sustainability mission, and supplement with specific objectives for each function or department. Take into consideration outside influences, such as industry standards, technological capabilities, legislation, special interest group concerns, and competitor strategy. The objectives should be clear, concise, and expressed in measurable terms. Compare them against existing business practices to ensure they add dimension but do not conflict with the overall strategy.

3. Make a Plan. Translate the policy statement and objectives into an operational plan. This is a company-wide task that will generate new organizational structures, accountability systems, reporting mechanisms, and operational processes. Rethinking every aspect of the company, determine which systems and processes will need modifications. Remember, this plan can be a huge undertaking and should be designed to evolve and improve over time.

4. Manage Expectations. Changes that will occur from the sustainability plan will require a shift in company culture and full participation from employees. The organizational structure may be revamped, and job descriptions will change. Determine whether new positions or training are needed and who will be in charge of the various initiatives. Innovate for new processes, scrutinize suppliers, and determine your financial requirements to implement the changes. Emphasize clear and ongoing company-wide communication of policies and objectives.

5. Record and Report. Determine the standards by which you will measure your sustainability efforts. This takes time, so don’t wait to begin implementation until this step is finished; it can be retrofitted later. Develop internal and external reports that show a comparison between measured objectives and performance over time. Strengthen accountability by tying these findings to employee incentives and publish externally at least once per year.

6. Make It Iterative. The cornerstone of an effective strategy is the ability to learn and adapt from it. Using the findings from your reports, as well as outside audits and stakeholder feedback, determine how the systems might be improved and if (and when) objectives should be tweaked. Managing your company’s social and environmental impact means proactively adopting strategies that drive growth while protecting future resources. The process requires an iterative approach and flexibility to constantly recalibrate processes, viewpoints, and assumptions.


Cradle to Cradle: A Framework for Sustainable Design

Since the Industrial Age, manufacturers have embraced a linear business model rooted in the finite lifespan of goods. Learn how businesses are challenging this “cradle-to-grave” approach with an ecologically circular model that considers the lives of future generations.

In their seminal book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough provide a powerful framework for a regenerative system of design and production. Unlike cradle-to-grave design, wherein a product at the end of its lifecycle is discarded, the cradle-to-cradle model recognizes the intrinsic value and use of the product and how it can be repurposed at the end of its lifecycle in ways beyond its original use. Here are just a few:

> Shaw Industries. Touting a 50% reduction in costs and water consumption, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer now employs a cradle-to-cradle framework for 64% of its floor coverings. At the heart of these efforts is its sustainable Nylon 6 fiber and a patented recycling technology.

> gDiapers. Biodegradable, flushable, and compostable, the hybrid diaper is 75% cellulose-based and contains no polypropylene or polyethylene plastic.

> Designtex. The textile company discovered the safe decomposition of its upholstery fabric meant they could save on costly disposal fees by turning scraps into felt and donating it to local farmers for ground cover.

> Replenish. A true disrupter in household cleaners, the upper portion of the bottle is reusable, while the lower part contains a concentrated refill pod with nontoxic, pH-neutral multi-surface cleaner.