How to make good on your sustainability promises

Cat Hirst

Co-Founder & CEO

8 June 2022

Your organisation has set far-reaching sustainability ambitions —you’re in a great place already.  But now what? How can you make sure you’re able to deliver on your goals and avoid the risk of falling short?

The growing risk of falling short on your sustainability promises

As ambitions get bolder, and more and more organisations embark on an ambitious sustainability journey, the risk of business falling short of their publicly-stated sustainability goals also grows.

51% of companies surveyed affirm that their senior management has made sustainability commitments and just 26% say they have fully integrated sustainability into their business strategy.
– Sphera’s Sustainability Survey 2021

And here are 4 reasons why the pressure for businesses to deliver on sustainability goals continues to intensify:

1. Pressure is growing for organisations to step up and do more — No longer content with major players sitting on the fence, investors are turning up the heat on the organisation’s they don’t think are moving fast enough.

2. More questions are being asked of those organisations blocking progress — Key issues such as climate change and inequality are forcing focus on why industries such as meat and fossil fuel production still plead ignorance.

3. Greenwashing is becoming an increasingly dangerous business — Organisations overstating their appetite or ability to deliver on their sustainability promises will no longer fly ‘under the radar’. A recent review of some of Europe’s largest fashion brands found that up to 60% of their sustainability claims were either “unsubstantiated” or “misleading”, with other household names such as Oatly, Innocent and Burt’s Bees also facing recent, very public, struggles. With more legislation being introduced to limit greenwashing, and consumers becoming increasing conscious of their impact, there won’t be anywhere to hide for much longer.

4. Time is running out — As stated in the latest IPCC report it’s ‘now or never’ for action on climate change. Put simply, at the societal level, we urgently need businesses to deliver on their ambitious goals.

So, how do you avoid these traps, and ensure your organisation is equipped and ready to deliver on its sustainability commitments?

OPPORTUNITY 1: Authentically put sustainability heart of your organisation

Without an authentic connection between sustainability and business purpose, you—at worst—risk epic greenwashing; and—at best—have sustainability working in the sidelines to drive ad-hoc achievements rather than recalibrate the business to be zero-carbon and, ideally, net-positive.

The opportunity here is to revisit and reignite the organisation’s purpose alongside your sustainability strategy with appropriate challenge, social and climate crisis experts, and straight-talking input from ‘critical friends’ who understand where the future is heading. Increasingly we see the most ambitious businesses look to bring together their wider business strategy and their sustainability strategy, knowing that to meet the ambitious goals for zero carbon, this can’t be treated separately from the wider commercial strategy—it needs to become one of the same.

In revisiting company purpose, values and cultures in line with sustainability ambitions, there is a huge opportunity to harness employees’ passion, vision, and creativity by helping shape the purpose through participatory multi-stakeholder processes. Develop co-creative outcomes in partnership with sustainability, internal comms, HR, marketing, supply chain etc. This will reveal and begin to integrate more future-fitting values, mindsets, priorities, and habits into the organisation—which will be essential in bringing the purpose to life in the organisation across products, processes, and people.

OPPORTUNITY 2: Leverage the power of your people to deliver your sustainability goals

It may at times feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in setting such ambitious goals… But you haven’t—we can’t afford not to be ambitious when we’re faced with a 2.5ºC+ world, even if we don’t know all the answers for how we will get there. You likely have roadmaps, frameworks, tools, and partnerships in place to achieve them, but you may be underplaying the role of the most powerful force for change in your organisation—your people.

You may have proudly and publicly presented your sustainability strategy, but the only way to reliably deliver on it is to engage all employees to build their capacity to drive change.

The opportunity here is to work across sustainability and with HR/L&D to design and deploy genuinely empowering and engaging development programmes focused on fostering individual mindsets, creative problem-solving, ownership mentalities, emotional courage, smart experimentation etc. This means designing culture-change interventions premised on nurturing, enhancing and maximising existing motivations, passions, and commitments for an ecologically and socially just world. Empowering everyone in the organisation to take ownership of sustainability within their own teams and roles is a key step in achieving bold sustainability goals.

OPPORTUNITY 3: Get creative with sustainability

A big challenge for corporate environments is that the transformation needed to deliver on bold goals will simply not occur as a result of spreadsheets, roadmaps, and reports—no matter how rigorous, brilliant, or well-presented. This tendency to focus on achieving continuous improvement on sustainability issues; and developing detailed business cases for efficiencies comes from the environmental management/CSR legacy from where sustainability has developed from. But if we are to reach 2030 without major disruption to ecological and social systems, we cannot be satisfied with incremental improvements. By distilling down complex, interrelated issues, and tirelessly ‘managing them’ into spreadsheets, we risk losing sight of the big breakthroughs that we must make as business to unlock zero-carbon, net biodiversity gains, and circular solutions.

The opportunity here is to shift sustainability from a place of compliance to become a source of creativity.

Practically speaking this means a mindset shift for the business. Individuals across the business must become:

Be fully aware of the threats, not getting stuck on complaints and compliance­, and minimisation and tech specs, but instead propelling the organisation forward with elevating stories and inspiring leadership.

Connected & empathic
Unlocking future-forging insights into the pain points of emerging stakeholders and building coalitions across multiple networks to resolve them collaboratively.

Creative & curious
Unleashing ideas that drive forward product, process, and people innovations that accelerate the path to net-positivity and generate long-term exponential value (profit) and impact (purpose).

Find out more about how your business could transcend “conventional sustainability” in our Creative Sustainability Briefing.

Provide your employees with the inspiration, tools, guidance, and resources to help them drive sustainability, but make sure they are self-led, and as on-the-job as possible. That doesn’t mean leave it up to them—in fact, it means a lot of upfront work to develop the right tools, initiatives and programmes that drive net-positive behaviours.

What this looks like is up to you, whether it’s running creative sustainability workshops to look at transformative ways of reaching 2030 goals, setting up an employee-led innovation sprint to tackle emerging sustainability challenges, or partnering with start-ups to experiment with innovative solutions. More information on how to engage with innovation can be found through the Sustainable Innovation Discovery.

Final thought

To engage and bring everyone along on the journey, you must develop interventions that speak to behaviours, mindsets, and emotions to support innate desires to be part of the solution—affording an uprush of grassroots energy and creativity to become a flood of momentum at the edges, where customers are served, and new, sustainable products, services and business models are produced.

Keep an eye out for our next blog, in which we’ll provide 3 ways to unlock the people power potential of your organisation to achieve your sustainability goals.

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