Sustainability? Ask Why.

Sustainability? Ask Why.

By CELESA HORVATH

Last week, I wrote about the importance of cultural integration and the need for a shared vision to guide the sustainability agenda, particularly through times of leadership change.  That made me reflect on how we get to that shared vision: we start with ‘why‘.

In my view, “why?” is one of the most critical questions any organization must ask itself before embarking on a sustainability journey.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and he was telling me his company had established a new sustainability committee.  When I probed a bit, he explained that the CEO had declared his desire for the company to issue a sustainability report, and the committee was struck to guide that task.  The committee, however, was struggling.

As we talked, it soon became clear there had been no internal discussion about why the company was suddenly pursuing a sustainability report, and no clear understanding about what the sustainability report was supposed to achieve.  No wonder the committee was unsure of its direction!  This is not the first time I’ve encountered a company that has kicked off a sustainability initiative with a vaguely defined outcome, and I know, if there’s no intervention, where it’s probably going: to fail.

Taking action without a fulsome consideration of the driving reasons behind the sustainability agenda can lead to serious difficulties in implementation, as well as frustration arising from unmet expectations both within and outside of the organization.

Let’s go back to the example of my friend’s company.  As we talked some more, we explored the possible reasons why the CEO might have wanted a sustainability report.  Was it because the company’s investors were asking for one?  Then the company would need to show how its sustainability attributes are contributing to the bottom line, and how it is managing environmental and other material non-financial risks.  Was it because competitors were already producing one?  In that case, the company would need to figure out how it compares and what differentiates it from others in the sector.  Or was it because reporting might help the company to track and improve performance?  Perhaps sustainability reporting isn’t the first step then.  Maybe the company should establish some internal data management systems first, set some performance objectives, and start collecting data on key aspects, and then tackle reporting next year.

As illustrated by this example, asking “why?” can uncover a range of reasons, each of which may demand a different strategy and different action to achieve the desired outcome.  In some cases, those strategies may be complementary, but in others, taking action that might be responsive to one sustainability driver may conflict with achieving the objectives of another.  Thus, if the driving reasons behind a sustainability initiative are not clearly understood at the outset, there’s a good chance the selected strategy won’t achieve the desired outcome.

Careful deliberation of why an organization is contemplating action on sustainability helps to develop and articulate a shared vision that will not only guide that action over time, but also help the organization to identify, scope, and coordinate the programs necessary to support that vision.

Is your organization beginning a sustainability initiative?  Ask why.

Celesa Horvath is a consultant, with some 20 years of experience in environmental assessment, regulatory affairs, corporate responsibility, and sustainability. She's been involved in projects across Canada and internationally, including China and the Middle East, for clients in the energy, mining, infrastructure, transportation, and government sectors, providing both strategic advice and practical implementation support. 

This post originally appeared on the Making Sense of Responsbility blog. Posted with permission of the author.