So you’ve decided that sustainability is integral to your career? Or maybe your boss decided for you? In either case, for those professionals who are in charge of improving the financial bottom line through sustainability or transforming an organization through sustainability, here are four concrete steps to take.
The supply chain—and all of it—is where many companies fall short of sustainability objectives. It’s where social abuses and environmental degradation can be found lurking. Direct suppliers are one thing. The suppliers to the suppliers of your suppliers are another. As a sustainability professional, it is important to focus on both the horizontal and vertical reaches of your supply chain. This can be done through third-party sustainability certification mandates and/or through thorough and random inspection at all levels of supply. If you belong to a service company, the same logic applies to services that you contract and to supplies (such as computers and phones) needed to conduct your business. Why not try a TCO-certified IT product?
So you’ve done everything to revamp your supply and manufacturing so that it is zero-waste, zero-carbon, closed-loop, and renewable material-based. You’ve added the recycling symbol to let customers know that your product does not have to end up in landfill. Now what? Too often, the sustainability efforts going into product development are thrown out the window once they reach the consumers hand. The end-user may not have the knowledge of how to go about reusing or recycling the product, and the services that enable that closed-loop may be absent in his or her community. Working to improve consumer awareness and to enable closed-loop systems become primordial. US retailer Best Buy provides one example of a successful take-back program. Working with government and civil society to understand and implement solutions at the neighborhood level is key to ensuring that the efforts in sustainability are fully realized.
Ensuring fruitful relationships with immediate stakeholders, namely customers, employees and shareholders, is the minimum. The wider community impacted by your offices, factories, logistics, and personnel are equally important stakeholders. Before implementing any new product or service that impacts a community, that community should be consulted (including those from multiple generations). The Project Management Institute defines a stakeholder as an individual, group or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity or outcome of the project. Are you reaching out to those who perceive themselves as affected by your product, service or organization?
Why bother with sustainability in the first place if only to fall victim to short-termism? There are plenty of theories, methods, and practices that address purely social responsibility and ethics, financial health, and environmental impact. What distinguishes sustainability from these three items is the emphasis on future generations and the urgency to integrate long-term planning into business and organizational practices. If a part of your sustainability transformation plan is stuck to quarterly financial targets, then the transformation will be incomplete. Try a backcasting exercise with stakeholders to develop a long-term plan with actionable milestones for your organization.
The four pointers outlined here comprise the SURF framework, which stands for supply chain, user, relations and future.
Marilyn Waite is author of Sustainability at Work: Careers that Make a Difference (Routledge 2016). You can follow her on Twitter @WaiteMarilyn or visit her website www.marilynwaite.com.