Five “Keys” to Unlock a Successful Sustainability Program - Key 1: Alignment with your Core Business Model
Successful businesses are adept at determining market changes, trends and expectations. They cannot be in such a rush to embrace the “new” trend that they abandon their fundamental and core purposes.
For any program to be valuable to a business, it must further the goals of that company. Businesses must therefore be prudent when it comes to sustainability efforts, and not rush headlong into activities or partnerships that are not aligned with their long-term interests because that, quite simply, is bad business.
Start with your established business model and vision
Most companies develop long-term visions of their future, identifying their objectives, strategies and tactics that they believe will help them to achieve those visions. These provide the basis by which business leaders select, support and evaluate the company’s progress – and strategic managers use those established frameworks to build (not just to justify) their programs.
These visions provide an opportunity to determine which sustainability efforts are most compatible with the long-term goals of the company; which support financial, operations, sales and cultural objectives that the company has determined will define the future. By breaking the company business down into discrete phases – inputs, production, impacts, marketing/distribution and end of lifecycle (for products), it is possible to identify general areas for each of the three pillars of sustainability.
It is important to avoid the temptation to assume that the program must impact every strategy or tactic as this is unrealistic and does not offer any prioritization. Companies must reconcile their desire to be socially responsible with their need to run a successful business and therefore be prepared to collaborate with only with reasonable stakeholders that are supportive of their business model - whether they are individuals or organizations. At the same time, it can be a costly lesson to learn when it comes to engaging with stakeholder individuals and organizations that have a core purpose that is counter to the business.
When it appears that this element is being violated, it is understandable that the public would view the arrangement skeptically as either a failure of strategic thinking (allowing a Trojan horse into its corporate offices) or as appeasement in an attempt to defray criticism.
In contrast, the partnership that my team created between Lafarge North America and Habitat for Humanity International was (and remains) a natural fit. Lafarge’s business relies on the sale of cement, concrete, crushed stone and gypsum wallboard products. Making the linkage between these products “materials for building our world” and Habitat’s mission to provide “decent, affordable housing” supports the business by connecting the company’s products with their social impact – they build a better world.
It is important to recognize that a company need not be large or to make a huge commitment of resources and time. When an automobile dealer lends vehicles for a community parade or allows the graduating high school class to borrow a truck on which to build their float for the homecoming game, the company does just as effective a job at demonstrates its commitment to the community and the value of its products or services. When a sporting goods store donates team jerseys for the softball team – it does the same thing.
In the next installment: Key 2: Integrating Sustainability into your Day-to-Day Operations
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John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW).
Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices.
His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.
Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.