2022: The year of business-wide sustainability activation

Cat Hirst

Co-Founder & CEO

16 December 2021

2021 has been the year that the business community firmly moved from the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ on sustainability. As bold commitments have been set for companies to achieve net zero, enhance biodiversity, limit ecosystem collapse, and reduce social inequality, we now look forward to 2022.

2022 will be a year where the focus needs to urgently shift to the ‘how’. How can bold commitments of 2021 be brought to life in business? How can companies ensure they are shifting intentions into action? How can a business walk the talk on sustainability and make tangible progress towards 2030 goals?

Here we introduce a theme that we believe is important for any business serious about driving action on sustainability and ESG next year – Organisation-wide activation on sustainability.

2021 – the year of sustainability intentions

2021 has been a milestone year for sustainability for 2 reasons: 1) the widespread realisation that we are at the tipping point for climate change and 2) the incredible commitment we have seen from business to play it’s part in solving the deepening social and environmental challenges

In 2021 record atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and associated heat have propelled the planet into uncharted territory (WMO). As policymakers, businesses and the public came together for COP 26, there was a clear acceptance of the fragile nature of the climate crisis.  But on the flip side, in this same year, we have seen a lot of positivity, exemplified by a shift in the level of corporate commitment, with businesses stepping up more than ever before:

But what’s next for companies that have set out their sustainability commitments?

Where should the sustainability focus be for 2022?

We’ve long discussed the role of business on sustainability, and for 2022 it’s clear that organisations need to focus on delivery. And this must be done by galvanising an organisation’s most powerful resource – it’s own people – to shift sustainability and ESG from a place of intention to action.

In 2020, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals and called for a Decade of Action. Nearly 2 years into this decade of action, it’s clear that corporate activity needs to become more tangible, and more impact-focused.  But how? We know from the businesses we speak with that moving sustainability from targets and reports to on-the-ground action can feel like a mountain to climb. Especially at a time when organisations are navigating increasingly complex challenges, experiencing fast and furious change, and juggling competing priorities.   But there is one theme for 2022 that could help you overcome these challenges – refocusing sustainability to become a source of creativity, engagement and tangible impact for all employees.

Let’s make 2022 the year of activation.

And to be clear, the reasons for a focus on activation and engagement is not solely driven by the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s to do with the fact that employees want to get involved in sustainability. Employees want purpose. Employees want to feel like they like they can excel in their role whilst making a difference in the world. And anyone leading on sustainability in business will have noticed this groundswell of interest – no longer is sustainability a lone-ranger role, right now everyone wants a piece of it – whether that’s the Communications Manager who wants to boost his CV, the Head of Finance who just wants to feel like she is giving back to society, the HR director who knows sustainability is inherently linked to staff retention and recruitment, the Project Manager who wants to be challenged, or the Team Secretary with a thirst for new knowledge and agency. Yes, this a critical time for achieving bold sustainability goals, but it’s also a massive opportunity for employee engagement, empowerment, experimentation, and business transformation.

How do you activate an entire organisation on sustainability?

So, the big question is how do you activate and empower all employees helping them understand their role in delivering your sustainability ambitions?  What if you could achieve deep board engagement on sustainability leading to a renewed confidence to lead the organisation to achieve the bold sustainability vision? What if in the next 6 months you could deliver an company-wide employee activation summit on your sustainability goals, leading to mindset shift, behaviour change and sustainability being embedded in every-day decision-making?

The first step is to get the foundations in place for activation by connecting some important dots internally. In many businesses sustainability exists as a discrete function, a centre of technical excellence, a small team of committed change-makers.  To set up for success ensure you have opened the dialogue on sustainability with key internal people and functions across sustainability, HR, L&D, strategy, and communications to name a few.  If you are going to take sustainability far and wide in the organisation, it might need to be repositioned with a handful of key decision-makers internally first, so put the time in to have some open, and frank discussions with key individuals from the earliest opportunity.

What are 3 things you can do to activate your whole organisation on sustainability?
1. Develop an employee-focused sustainability narrative

Many organisations now have a sustainability strategy in place, with goals, often publicly communicated for 2030, 2040 and beyond. This may have been proudly presented externally – maybe through a glossy report, a smart animation, and/or a heavily polished press release. But is this a narrative that has been developed to drive human connection, engagement and ultimately action? Has it been considered through the lens of an employee? I always say the key test for whether you’ve cracked this is, is to wonder what would happen if someone external tapped an ‘everyday employee’ on the shoulder and asked, ‘what is your companies position on sustainability’? Would they answer confidently, listing off the areas of the focus, the 2030 goals, and maybe give an example of how that is filtering down into their role, on the job decision making etc. For many companies the answer is – probably not. Their response might be something along the lines of, ‘I’m personally very interested in sustainability, but for a question about what we as a company are doing, I suggest you speak to our Head of sustainability /ESG’.

2. Undertake an employee sustainability needs analysis & strategy

It is crucial that any activation activities are developed to meet people where they are at, and for every organisation that will be different. And for this, you need to conduct an employee-focused sustainability needs analysis. When we support businesses with this aspect we undertake indepth interviews, design thought-provoking surveys, and develop focus group materials that can be run by external facilitators, or even better – designed to be run by a non-sustainability professional in the business. Understanding the baseline of how people are currently feeling, thinking, and acting on sustainability is key. And involving them, listening to them as you develop your sustainability engagement approach is also critical. You will want to be an organisation that is collaborative in your approach and works to identify and nurture existing passions and motivations. The next stage is using the employee-led insight you have now generated to develop a people-based strategy for sustainability engagement. This is the stage where every possible intervention for employee activation on sustainability should be considered, including but not limited to learning programmes, innovation initiatives, guided learning resources (podcasts, videos, blogs, books etc), knowledge hubs, rewards and recognition, behaviour change tools, and on-the-job support tools.

3. Organisation-wide activation programmes

The next step is the design and delivery of an activation activity, or series of activities. This is the time that you bring everyone together through an event, a communication, and/or a programme, to ensure that every employee is on the same page about the sustainability goals, and has the opportunity to connect with the sustainability vision on a very human level, so that they feel a part of something special. The design of this activity is critical. Ensuring it excites rather than overwhelms. That is engages all rather than side-lining the ‘non-experts’. That it clarifies rather than complicates. And achieving this balance is an artform in itself. But done properly, these activation activities become extremely effective ways of bringing everyone together on the importance of sustainability, channelling enthusiasm, overcoming cynicism, and ensuring everyone feels empowered to play a role. Here are just some of the ways the activation can come to life for a business:

    • Board sustainability activation programmes – a board specific session to build the boards capacity and confidence on sustainability
    • Employee engagement & empowerment sustainability summit – a 2-hour company wide event to empower all employees on sustainability, held virtually or face to face
    • Behaviour change tools and ‘on the job’ support materials
    • Guided learning opportunities (e.g. a digital sustainability learning hub).

So here’s to 2022 being the year of activation. Organisations that stand to go far towards in achieving their targets will have a plan in place so that every person in the business and connect with the ambitions, thus driving individual and collective action.

If you’d like to learn about the FutureMakers approach to activation, click here.