Developing a network of sustainability champions that works

Cat Hirst

Co-Founder & CEO

17 November 2022

Are you looking for highly practical ideas to help you achieve your sustainability goals? Are you looking to better engage your brightest and most passionate employees on the issues they care most about? Are you seeking more innovative and cross-business sustainable solutions?

There are many pitfalls a business can fall into when launching a sustainability champions network, but this blog explains how to avoid those and instead convene and nurture a transformational network of individuals who can drive your business to achieve its sustainability goals with the urgency required:

We’re standing on a precipice—without immediate and large-scale action, we will fail to stem the climate crisis. The latest IPCC report made this startlingly clear: to limit warming to 1.5°C—the necessary level to mitigate irreversible damage to ecosystem services across the globe—greenhouse gas emissions need to peak within the next three years and then reduce by over half by 2030, ultimately reaching net-zero by 2050. We’ve already done a huge amount of damage, with global wildlife populations collapsing by 69% since 1970—but more worrying still was the UN’s announcement that, after analysis of the measures in place, there is no ‘credible pathway’ in place to achieving the 1.5°C target.

If you and your business are listening to the discussions at COP27 and feeling like you want to move even quicker on your sustainability strategy, what can you practically do to inject more ideas, momentum and cross team collaboration into your sustainability efforts? How can you build out from sustainability team to better support internal colleagues and clients? How can you nurture the passion of your brightest and most ambitious individuals, equipping them with the skills to lead sustainable transformation of the business?

Let’s find out.

Sustainability Champions is a phrase that sounds ‘so 5 years ago’. As businesses realised the need to respond to issues such as climate change, biodiversity, resource scarcity and inequality, sustainability champions were often identified and convened as an early step.  A means of pacifying over-excited individuals by giving them a sustainability role,  a way of providing a forum for discussion on ESG issues,  and to demonstrate that the company was putting resources into sustainability. More often than not however, sustainability champions networks failed to deliver. They fizzled away. Leaving those passionate individuals that put their time into it feeling disgruntled and disenfranchised. And in many cases these people moved on to find more purposeful work.

BUT sustainability champions is a concept that can work brilliantly, if done right.

Firstly, it’s important to say that a sustainability champions network should only ever be considered in addition to raising organisation-wide awareness and agency on sustainability. It is not a replacement.  If businesses are to achieve their goals, we need every single person in that organisation to be aware, motivated by and equipped to deliver on sustainability/ESG.  And you can read more about how to achieve that in my previous blog – activating your staff.  Sustainability champions becomes an additional layer to that.

So, if you are to engage, empower, and drive business transformation through a sustainability champions network, how can you do it right?

STEP 1: Set up for success

The devil’s in the detail in the preparation for a long-standing and productive  sustainability champions network. It’s key to think ahead and do all of the big thinking before jumping in to launching your network. Doing the hard thinking now will pay dividends down the road, and following the following steps will be a great start:

  1. Decide on a name—This doesn’t have to be “Champions”, it could be “Ambassadors”, “Future Leaders”, etc;
  2. Write a job spec—it’s key that it’s taken as seriously as any other part of their role, so a clear and formal specification is key. Set out what you expect from them, what you hope they’ll achieve, what support they’ll receive, and for how long their commitment is requested (given the nature of sustainability this can’t be 100% prescriptive, but it can give a clear indication of the areas of focus, ways of working, and time allocation expected) ;
  3. Recruit well—make this as a diverse as group as possible. The number depends on the size of your organisation, but we find that groups of 20-40 people work well. This is a good number to encourage a range of perspectives, create a strong sense of community, whilst ensuring the group isn’t so big that the accountability and prestige isn’t diluted;
  4. Get leadership buy-in and commitment—Have the conversations with the board, line managers making sure there is an appreciation and mechanism for the champions to put a good amount of time into their champion role (e.g., for organisations we’ve worked with this has ranged from 20-35% of time);
  5. Plan for the future of the network—Come up with a plan for fresh intake of champions, don’t keep it static.
STEP 2: Build the capacity of your employees as ‘change-makers’

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking some basic sustainability training is all that your champions will require. That won’t be enough. In addition to understanding the key principles of sustainability, they will need to have their minds expanded with cutting edge thinking on business transformation, emergent economic models, innovation frameworks, and regenerative business models.

They need inspiration on the newest and most radical signals of change in the sector, the most cutting-edge examples of sustainability and regenerative practice both inside and outside of your industry. They need time and space to explore the connections between different issues and themes, recognising and embracing the interconnectedness of issues such as carbon emissions, climate resilience, nature-based solutions, and resource depletion.

In addition to this, the champions also need to explore their own leadership style, reflecting on their own potential and which skills and attributes they would most like to develop so they can drive sustainability across the organisation. And peer-coaching can be a very powerful tool to help the champions reflect on their existing skills and where they can best develop as a change-maker.  We use a list of 6 key attributes that a champion will need to develop and  – through a diagnostic tool – we help each person identify where they are currently at for each of these critical attributes and offer practical tools and tips to help them improve.

STEP 3: Focus on live projects and pilots that shift ways of working, products and services

This is the most important step in ensuring your champions are helping your organisation genuinely innovate ways of working, products, services and ultimately business models.

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. The champions’ job is to support their teams and the Head of sustainability in solving complex challenges.

Champions will need to feel confident that they have the tools, budgets, processes, time, leadership, and support to deliver transformational 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. Recently with a client in the financial sector, we structured these projects in the following way:

  • The 6 biggest sustainability challenges were set by the sustainability committee which included: sustainable finance, climate action, impact investing, occupier engagement, diversity & inclusion, and corporate action
  • 6 teams were assembled within the champions network (c. 4 people per team) each focusing on one of the identified sustainability challenges
  • A sustainable innovation guide was developed for the project teams to work through, ensuring they were challenging business-as-usual solutions. This guided the teams through key steps including :
    • Understanding and articulating the challenge
    • Developing a project plan—opportunities to seize, internal and external stakeholders to engage and team resourcing
    • Generating a series of ideas, and prioritising one to focus attention on
    • Piloting, learning, and setting out a plan for implementation
    • Developing a project narrative (with a 10-slide deck) to communicate the idea and gain support with a clear call to action
  • The teams worked to progress their ideas for 3 months and then presented these back to the ESG committee.

As I write, each of the teams are still working through their project ideas, and awareness and support of them is growing both internally and externally.   It’s exciting to see where these solutions will go, especially as it’s so clear that the cross- function team work, the innovation journey they have followed, and the storytelling they have each developed has put this business in a very different place, a mere 3 months down the track.

And finally…

By establishing a sustainability champions network that works, you can help your employees get behind your biggest and most complex sustainability challenges and give them support and inspiration to solve these in an innovative and highly collaborative way.

In this way, the champions become an extension of your sustainability team, helping you reach your goals faster. Transformational sustainability happens across the organisation, conceiving new business models and strategically transforming the enterprise from the inside, out.

If your company is interested in developing a sustainability champions network/ programme and would like more advice, please fill out our contact form or drop us an email at:

Case Study: Savills Investment Management

Nurturing and empowering a network of Champions to drive sustainability action

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