(4 minute read) Change is in the air. Public, government, finance and corporate opinion is turning in favour of sustainable business models. A sustainable business is one that is lower carbon and more environmental and socially aware, and is managing its environmental and community risks with a view to long-term, profitable operations.
These days, everyone has an opinion on the environment and there is increasing pressure on businesses to become more sustainable (see ‘Why sustainability is suddenly such a big deal?‘ and ‘It’s fashionable to talk about sustainability‘ for more information). That increase noise has made it easier to get business on board with the theory of changing, but the reality of making a change is still a difficult concept to grasp.
One question I get a lot is “how can I start thinking about this in my business?”. I am a firm advocate of baby steps. You cannot, nor should you, change overnight. Switching to a sustainable, low carbon business model is one that takes time, thought and budget – none of which can happen instantly.
You may already have some sort of office recycling scheme, or an anti-plastic drive being run by a concerned member of the office. Or someone’s child is learning about it at school. Wherever you work, someone, or multiple someones, will have something that they’re already doing to be more environmentally friendly. That is hugely valuable as those are the people who can help you scale it up to a true sustainability strategy.
Below are three things you can do within 1 year to start your transition to a more sustainable business.
1. Get leadership buy in
Present the business case for why a sustainable business is a profitable business. There is plenty of information out there on the benefits to business of having a sustainability strategy. A quick internet search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know. I have summarised some of the background to the recent shift in public opinion in my article “Why is sustainability suddenly such a big deal?”, to give you a starting point, but it’s worth also looking at information on changing weather patterns and their impacts on business productivity, or the change in mainstream attitudes towards the sustainability agenda.
If you’re already senior in your business, you can use this information to communicate the concept to colleagues. If you need leadership buy-in then present the case in the context of what your business does, what your stakeholders want and why it’s a good idea to work on it. Once you have senior level support you can get moving.
2. Map out the issues
Build a materiality map of key issues in your business related to sustainability. Office waste and paper printing are important, but they may not be the most important issue impacting your profit margin. Your research towards getting leadership buy in can help in informing the discussion here – and help to direct colleagues thoughts to broader issues such as supply chain and employee productivity.
Get a group of colleagues together who work on different things. Speak to different people in the business. If you have different departments, speak to them – or just corner people over coffee and talk to them. Get them to talk about the key areas they focus on and have a discussion about the potential risks and opportunities in that area. Ask them a series of questions to drive the debate – some ideas on what questions to ask can be found in my article on what insurers can teach us about sustainability.
Don’t get too hung up on capturing every little thing, but write the key issues down on post-it notes and put them on a big piece of paper. If you have a smart screen or magnetic board, so much the better (less paper waste!). You will notice that you can start grouping the issues into key themes (e.g. culture, operations, procurement etc). If you’re able to do it as a group workshop that’s great, but if not you can still get a good result by talking to colleagues individually and keeping a record of their thoughts.
Are there some quick solutions to the issues listed? Are the solutions a bit longer-term or do they require more budget? Separate the issues out and start listing some potential solutions – group them in to short, medium and long-term challenges by theme.
3. Write it down!
You already have the map. Write down the key themes, list the key people involved, highlight the senior person who is supporting it. Identify the short-term wins that you can achieve. Think about how you can keep up to date with what’s happening in the business to address the challenges, and how you can communicate that to the rest of the business.
Get your senior level supporter to help you sign it off – get support to continue working on it alongside other interested colleagues. Make sure anything you write down is relevant to the business activities and speaks to any other policies or process documents you have.
Use that document to track progress over the course of the next few years. Tick off issues as you find, and implement, solutions to them and report progress to the senior team in the business. Make the key progress available to all staff as an easy 1-page document so they can see what has happened.
Developing and integrating a sustainability strategy for a business is not a quick thing to do, but you can make a really good start in the first year by following these key principles. Consider bringing in external speakers occasionally to inspire alternative thinking from colleagues.
The good news is that there is a lot of help out there for businesses looking to do this work, with plenty of experts in the field able to provide support. The great news is that, by investing in developing a sustainability strategy, your business can learn to adapt to this rapidly changing, lower carbon world.
I am a sustainability coach with over 10 years experience in the sustainability sector. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how I can help you integrate sustainability into your organisation