A 4-step pathway to becoming a sustainable organisation

How can organisations accelerate their impact through sustainability to play a leading role in the renewal and restoration of a damaged environment and fractured society?

19 February, 2021

It certainly feels like the tides are turning in ways I only dreamt of when working as starting as a mere student in sustainability almost 20 years ago. Finally… business gets it. Organisations — whatever their role in the world, whoever they employee, whoever they serve — have realised that policymakers alone wont be enough, business has a critical role to play in making the world a better place whilst delivering value to their customers. Businesses are not just up for the challenge, many are getting genuinely excited about the opportunity sustainability brings to reconnect with their purpose, dial up their ambition and innovate to deliver sustainable products and services to meet changing customer needs.

But even where a organisation and it’s CEO gets it — they know they need to change, and want to change. What next? How can an organisation authentically and effectively move beyond the rhetoric of ‘zero carbon by 2030’, ‘regenerative by 2050’, ‘zero waste by 2040’ (as examples) to actually deliver on its promises? Whilst an organisation might be absolutely clear on the fact it needs to play a role in restoration of a damaged environment and fractured society, it might be very unclear on what that role entails, what the future business model looks like, and how it will be delivered. And the reason for this uncertainty is not just that the pace of change is so high, it’s that every organisation has its own essence — what it brings to the word, its own unique structures, systems, and people. Which means there can be no blueprint for exactly what how an organisation sets it’s sustainability vision, its goals, how it’s people deliver on it, and how its products, services and business model are transformed.

BUT …. there can be a guiding framework, a pathway that can guide any organisation to become a sustainable, and ultimately regenerative model. Regardless of where an organisation is on that journey, these 4 steps help bring sustainability from the sidelines to the heart of the organisation. They will help unlock sustainability as a source of creativity to shift mindset and culture. They will ensure that innovation is leveraged to solve customer needs whilst resolving social and ecological problems.

So here we go…

Step 1 — Reignite Your Purpose

For any organisation wanting to transform, it’s purpose must become the driver of creative problem-solving, galvanising people to come together to lead and land positive impact.

Purpose gives a much needed sense of direction for change. And for many organisations one of the most powerful things they can do is to reflect on, rediscover, reshape and reignite the purpose. And to do this properly means recognising two things:

1. No business can be separate to nature, it is fundamentally connected.

The economy relies on the economy to thrive. Without a thriving planet there can be no business. The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth:

“Our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it.”

– Sir Partha Dasgupta (The Economics of Biodiversity)

2. Business needs to make sure it is contributing to something beyond itself.

Whatever the business model, the sector, the products the services it offers, it is crucial that an organisation considers the whole that it is serving, which means looking well beyond its own footprint. Some of the most sustainable organisations have achieved great innovation and impact by ensuring its purpose looks beyond itself to the role it can play in a thriving world.

Here are just a few examples of where organisational purpose ensures the business is looking to contribute to something beyond itself and make a genuine contribution to societal and ecological thriving:

  • Patagonia: We’re in business to save our home planet.
  • Danone: Bringing health through food to as many people as possible.
  • Tesla: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
  • Nike: To unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all.
  • Unilever: To grow our business, while decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth and increasing our positive social impact.(Note: This is framed as a vision as opposed to a purpose)

So if you’re reading these statements, and feeling totally uninspired by the purpose of your own organisation — likely reflecting that delivering profit to shareholders is not particularly motivating — you wont be alone.

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”

– Howard Schultz, Starbucks

And a feeling of misalignment, an unease, is a sign that your organisation needs to revisit is role in the world. Delivering profit is not enough, there is a greater responsibility to people and the planet that must be captured it organisational purpose, mission and values.

So presuming the work has been done to ensure the purpose is authentically contributing to the societal and ecological thriving, the next job is to make sure employees and stakeholders are aware of it and connecting to it at a personal level. Purpose needs to be brought to life throughout the entire organisation so that everyone involved in the business feels that they are contributing to both generate profit and make identifiable environmental and social improvements. This brings the organisation together with a renewed focus to explore and understand the issues facing humanity and the natural world and acknowledges how the organisation can best contribute to those issues. This means allowing people to show how much they care about themselves, their communities, and our world. It means providing the time, space and connection opportunities for them to bring their whole selves — passionate and messy — to work to deploy purpose.

So in summary of Step 1, how will you know that your organisation is on the right track? Some quick checks for you around reigniting purpose:

  • Your organisational purpose makes a contribution to societal and ecological thriving
  • Your employees and stakeholders are aware of and connected to the purpose
  • Your organisational purpose guides decision-making
Step 2 — Set Bold Ambitions

Put simply, bold ambitions need to be set to promote action on the problems that matter. In this way, thought leaders from across the businesses come together with delivery partners and customers to co-create an ambitious sustainability vision, strategy, and targets to ensure a license to operate through 2030 and beyond. It is absolutely critical that an organisation takes the time to understand the sustainability issues most material to the customers it serves — often a step which is overlooked entirely. And to do this means engaging directly with end users to find out what matters most to them, what they care about. Whether that be access to nature, minimising waste, climate change, diversity and inclusion, digital accessibility, ethical supply chains, the list goes on.

Once the material issues are determined, the ambitions can be developed, and they should be BOLD! It is more important the ambitions go far enough without a clear plan to achieve them than to downgrade the ambitions to provide detailed certainty for year on year delivery (e.g. through a roadmap). The latter will only drive incremental change at best.

The sustainability commitments you make are likely to be aligned to a 2030 and/or 2050 timeframe, with a level of ambition that will naturally force major shifts in business models. And will most likely fall into the ‘doing better’ camp (e.g. zero carbon, zero waste), or the ‘leaving it better’ camp (e.g. carbon negative, net positive biodiversity, net positive social impact). The more the ambitions that can sit within a regenerative paradigm the better, and here are some examples of those organisations that are setting bold ambitions through the lens of regenerative/net positive/‘leaving it better’:

And going beyond the ambitions themselves, a strategy must be established that considers how these bold ambitions will be brought to life in the organisation so the it can deliver on its promises. Ideally this will be a business strategy that puts sustainability at its heart, not a sustainability or ESG strategy that sits to the side of it. This doesn’t mean setting KPIs for thousands of sustainability metrics with year-on-year targets for incremental improvement. It involves being genuinely strategic, understanding and engaging with the resources you have in your organisation, and how you can activate people and process to deliver against the big, bold ambitions. It involves engaging well beyond the sustainability team and activating the sustainability ambitions across the entire organisation.

It means considering all strategic levers for driving change — communications, learning & development, financial systems, partnerships and business transformation etc.

And beyond the activation, delivery of the ambitions needs strong leadership, confidence and courage. It can be tough going to drive a strategy while keeping up resilience and being cognisant of the fact your customers, employees business models, and the systems in which you operate are continually evolving. So ensuring there is support for those individuals leading the sustainability charge (e.g. CEO, Head of sustainability) is key; whether that comes from peers, an external coach, or team leaders. It means carving out the proper time and space to reflect as issues and ideas evolve, so the strategy can pivot and develop without losing sight of the bold targets.

TIP: If your boards, shareholders, and colleagues are pushing for detailed answers on how to achieve your 2030/2050 ambitions, and you can’t tell them the answer, instead of feeling deflated, feel good about it — remind yourself of how you have helped your organisation go bold on the issues that matter.

And as you can see, the nature of having such ambitious commitments means ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’. To give an example, you may be absolutely clear on what you want to achieve (zero carbon), but not always equipped with the detailed answers on how that will be achieved (the zero carbon pathway). And that is a leadership challenge which needs to be properly supported by the organisation.

So in summary of Step 2, how will you know that your organisation is on the right track to set bold ambitions? Some quick checks for you:

  • A sustainability strategy exists which is driven by the most material environmental and societal issues
  • Net-positive ambitions have been set
  • Net-positive ambitions have been activated across the organisation
Step 3 — Empower a Creative Culture

As the biggest and best resource for any business, people offer the largest opportunity for any transformation. Hence why it is especially vital to leverage wisdom, empathy, passion, decision-making, and leadership crucial for transformation with an end-game of transitioning to a regenerative business model.

With bold ambitions in place; it is crucial that all employees are empowered to deliver. Everyone should be empowered to drive change through their own work, whether that be it product design, project management, HR, research, marketing, supply chain management or finance. Too often sustainability is ‘held’ as a specialism, an expertise, an industry. And whilst of course there will need to be technical expertise held by the central sustainability team and its advisors, it is crucial to unlock the power of all employees to drive sustainability through the decisions they make, the processes they lead, the systems they operate, and ultimately the products and services they deliver.

Key to this is having a compelling and accessible narrative on the business purpose and sustainability ambitions. If it’s littered with acronyms, jargon, and complex technical speak, it won’t be easy for every employee to engage with it. So to start with at least, you need to engage everyone with the vision, the story of possibility, and then empower them to take action. You’ll be amazed at the difference that results from making it clear that sustainability is part of everyones day job. Time spent on that empowerment piece can be critical in shifting the organisational mindset and culture on sustainability.

But don’t stop there, take a developmental and highly participatory approach with every individual and team. Provide them with learning opportunities, help them understand the questions they should be asking, give them practical examples of how they could embody net-positive behaviours, inspire them with examples of how other organisations have achieved their ambitions, engage your customers and stakeholders so they can tell their stories. All of this will work to motivate, to inspire, to develop, to evolve every individual, thus building your organisation’s capacity to deliver on its sustainability ambitions.

And whilst the temptation will be there to buy in a quick training solution, don’t do it! Ad-hoc training solutions, and sheep-dipping exercises will not shift the dial sufficiently where such bold ambitions are in play. You need to invest in every individual, giving them the genuine development opportunities to build net positive mindsets, behaviours, work through new decision-making frameworks, processes, and systems. This will help the organisation develop its own potential to be a sustainable and ultimately regenerative enterprise.

Distilling down, oversimplifying, codifying, and spoon-feeding them knowledge, or worse than that — information — will not unleash the creativity that I promise you is stored up in your people, ready to go. And how do I know that? Let’s face it, who wants to work in a soul-sapping organisation where they are fed information, told what do do, and driven by purely profit margin. Ultimately, people want to be of service, working in a purposeful, dynamic, agile business where everyone is empowered to do things differently, and develop new ideas that will contribute to that organisation delivering more value to the world.

Any organisation that is serious about sustainability needs to empower an army of systemic thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and passionate storytellers.

Your approach to culture change will totally depend on your organisations purpose values and ways of working, but here are a few ideas of what other organisations have done, with tools you can use to engage your employees:

So in summary of Step 3, how will you know that your organisation is on the right track to nurture a creative culture? Some quick checks for you:

  • Employees are empowered to act on social and environmental issues as part of their day job
  • Employees are proactively adapting and evolving their behaviours, processes and decisions to drive sustainable outcomes
  • A creative culture exists which supports learning, experimentation and responsible decision-making
Step 4 — Drive Transformational Innovation

Engagement through activation and empowerment on sustainability is key. But given the level of ambition of these goals, innovation of products, services and entire business models will be required. Purpose, ambitions and culture are enablers for change, but it is this fourth step in the pathway — innovation — that is so crucial in driving tangible change in the world — that can be experienced, touched, and felt.

‘There is no company whose business model won’t be profoundly affected by the transition to a net zero economy.”

– Larry Fink, Blackrock (2021 Letter to CEOs)

An organisation’s sustainability ambitions have been set within an extremely challenging context, where legislation, environmental conditions, political context, and financial markets are all moving more quickly and unpredictably than ever before. This means that innovation teams will need to be assembled in both an agile way, and to strategically use the organisation’s purpose and ambitions to focus on problems that really matter to society. Their job is then to solve these problems through the lens of regenerative innovation.

These individuals will need to feel confident that they have the tools, budgets, processes, time, leadership, and support to deliver transformational/regenerative solutions in products, services, processes, and business models. And they need to have the right people involved to co-create new ideas. This means considering the whole system that your organisation is serving, undertaking proper collaboration design, and connecting with existing and prospective customers to drive the process. Without the proper resource and the attention of the customer, the ‘doing less harm’ paradigm will endure, or even worse, the organisation will inch its way back to ‘business as usual’ — operating the same core business model but with some sustainable flourishes thrown in to make everyone feel better.

And that’s the truth people. Whether you’re on track to achieve zero carbon, or to go beyond that and become net positive, entire business models will need to be adapted for organisations to maintain their license to operate and their relevance in the world. And it’s the forward-looking businesses that will make sure sustainable innovation is harnessed to deliver their bold ambitions. They will listen to, and engage with, the system in which they operate. They will employ regenerative innovation processes and tools and engage in creativity capacity building to activate ‘intrapreneurs’ who can crack transformational problems and unlock a new operating model. They will use tools that force them to ask difficult questions, to challenge their assumptions and help them think differently. Their services and products will be rethought entirely, and business decisions will no longer go through a purely financial lens, but through one that also considers the natural world and society. Visionary and creative sustainability will be at the epicentre of the organisation, conceiving new business models and strategically transforming the enterprise from the inside, out.

Business models

  • Ørsted: This organisation has reinvented its business model over the past decade from being coal intensive to almost entirely renewable energy. Divesting in fossil fuels and investing in offshore wind power helped the organization reduce carbon emissions by 83%

Regenerative products and services

  • Patagonia: NetPlus® recycled fishing nets by Bureo, made from 100% recycled discarded fishing nets collected in fishing communities in South America, and supported through Tin Shed Ventures®, Patagonia’s venture capital fund.

So in Summary of Step 4 — how will you know that your organisation is on the right track to deliver business transformation through innovation? Some quick checks for you:

  • Innovation is driven by environmental and social issues affecting the end user
  • Evolution of products, services services and business models is considered through the lens of a regenerative business
  • We have organisational capacity to innovate regenerative products, services, and business models
In conclusion…

Wherever you are on the sustainability journey, know that the people you have in your organisation can get you to where you want to be. By framing your thinking around this 4 step pathway, you can be more ambitious, more visionary, and more effective at transforming your organisation with sustainability at its heart. It requires everyone in the business to step up, think in a more a systemic way, and reconnect with purpose and customers in deeper ways than ever before. But it is absolutely possible. Remember no amount of reports, strategies will change your business or the world in which it operates. Trust in the immense potential for your people to deliver change.