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Sustainability & Social Responsibility

Embedding Sustainability: A 5-Step Approach


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

September/October 2011, eSide Supply Management Vol. 4, No. 5

A report by Simon Fraser University and the Network for Business Sustainability recommends five tried-and-true strategies for making sustainability part of the organizational culture.

According to recent research by British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, nearly all CEOs — 93 percent — regard sustainability as important to their company's future success. Yet, many of them admit to struggling with how they can embed it into their companies' cultures.

This conundrum is the basis for a recent report: Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture: A Systematic Review of the Body of Knowledge, written by Simon Fraser's Stephanie Bertels, Ph.D. and Lisa and Daniel Papania, Ph.D. candidates. The report was distributed by the nonprofit Network for Business Sustainability, or NBS.

"A group of managers representing a range of private and public sector organizations told us they wanted this issue researched," explains Tima Bansal, Ph.D., executive director of NBS. "This report is the culmination of a full year's effort to compile and synthesize the best academic research in the area."

Defining the Culture

To begin, the three authors settled on a definition for "sustainability." Among the many different ones that exist, they say the most frequently cited comes from the World Council on Economic Development: operating in ways that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In practice, this definition lends itself to managing a triple bottom line of financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities, they explain.

Embedding Green: Two hands cupped together filled with dirt and small green plant.

"We view sustainability as a goal, not an end point," the authors state. "In today's business environment, sustainability is something that many companies are striving toward, but few (if any) have yet achieved. One key component of this journey involves embedding sustainability into organizational culture."

How to Foster Commitment

Bertels and the Papanias culminated their findings into five informal practices which they contend support the goal of delivering on existing sustainability commitments. They are 1) engaging, 2) signaling, 3) communicating, 4) managing talent and 5) reinforcing.

1) Engaging. When attempting to engage the organization, the authors assert that a handful of informal strategies can raise the group's collective level of awareness and understanding of sustainability. These include:

Foster competition. To accomplish this goal, Bertels and the Papanias suggest hosting sustainability competitions between business units or regional units. "This has the added benefit of generating (and identifying) new ideas," they point out. As an example, they cite one business unit that was awarded additional training resources for energy, water and waste reductions — an initiative which resulted in significant reductions across the company.

Make it easy. The researchers assert that it should be simple for employees to make choices that favor sustainability — for example, by taking advantage of employer-provided transit pass programs, ride sharing and secure bicycle parking. One unnamed company even bought a fleet of smart cars for work-related travel during the day so employees can still take transit to and from work.

Support grassroots efforts. Bertels and the Papanias recommend small grants or time off for sustainability projects launched by employees. Additionally, they suggest allotting company time to meet and discuss conceiving and launching corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

Capture quick wins. When pursuing organizational commitment to sustainability, the researchers suggest identifying "low-hanging fruit," and starting there. "Small successes can be used to overcome areas of resistance," they say. "It's an important tactic for demonstrating that a new approach is effective to encourage already enthusiastic supporters to get behind future quality improvement programs."

Prioritize recognition. Publicly recognizing employees at staff meetings, creating sustainability awards and holding celebrations are tried-and-true strategies for fostering CSR commitment in the short and long term, according to the researchers. "Unlike the formal practice of incentives — in which compensation is directly tied to specific sustainability measures or outcomes — recognition involves informal attempts to indicate approval or appreciation for efforts to improve organizational sustainability," they explain.

2) Signaling. By recommending "signaling," the researchers refer to those practices that identify sustainability as a priority for the organization. These include:

Modeling — Demonstrating sustainability leadership by "walking the walk" and "talking the talk." Practitioners and researchers alike say commitment from senior management and board members is a critical success factor for embedding sustainability. "If the CEO is talking about it, then everyone notices," they assert. "People are far more likely to try out new behaviors if they see them modeled by others they respect and admire."

Backing up subordinates when they make a decision to prioritize sustainability is another way to send a strong signal, according to Bertels and the Papanias. "The order in which you say things speaks volumes," they state. "Consider placing sustainability at the top of the agenda at every staff meeting."

Allocating resources — Backing up the commitment to sustainability with the allocation of time, money and people. Specifically, the report recommends giving managers the discretionary time and resources needed for creatively CSR problem-solving.

3) Communicating. Bertels and the Papanias identified two core practices related to communicating: storytelling and customizing.

Storytelling. This approach promotes desired sustainability behaviors through the use of examples and stories — the discussion of case studies of successful sustainability initiatives, for example. Or, by sharing stories that illustrate what the company could be like in the future.

"Storytelling can open up lines of communication, create integration opportunities and develop a commitment to new values," they say. "And, stories that present the company as further along the journey can inspire people to live up to the ideal."

Customizing. This practice tailors the organization's CSR message to ensure that it is authentic and relevant for different internal and external audiences — by using terminology that is familiar to the particular audience, or by translating abstract sustainability concepts into language that enables employees to understand their application in day-to-day business, for example.

"Different groups within the organization might be receptive to different styles and means of communication," the researchers explain. "In the case of multinational firms, this might involve addressing the local context to ensure the message has local relevance."

4) Managing talent. Hiring individuals with the passion, attitude and competence to deal with environmental and sustainability issues in their daily work, and placing the right people in the right roles across the organization, have both proven instrumental within many organizations, according to Bertels and the Papanias. "Refer to sustainability values, goals and performance in recruiting materials, and integrate sustainability into all job advertisements," they recommend. "Make sustainability part of all job descriptions for new hires, and select new employees on the basis of a commitment to sustainability."

5) Reinforcing. Such practices emphasize the importance of sustainability, or the particular actions that lead to sustainability. "Organizations must constantly reinforce the sustainability message in various ways to embed it in the hearts and minds of all employees," the researchers emphasize. To this end, they suggest performing regular checkpoints and reviews to keep sustainability on the organizational agenda, and to maintain momentum.

Informing and repeating. The researchers recommend acting repeatedly to keep employees informed, apprised and up-to-date on CSR initiatives and progress. "If they aren't familiar with current programs and the intended future direction, they might feel excluded or detached from the organization and its ambitions," they explain. "Often, top managers believe such sharing leads to a loss of power; however, firms with frequent, honest and open communication policies cultivate and reinforce a culture of quality improvement."

Wrap It Up With Follow-Up

To ensure sustainability tasks are completed, Bertels and the Papanias recommend monitoring, reviewing and enquiring on the status of key CSR tasks. In practice, this means periodically evaluating the organization's environmental results; obtaining employee feedback to understand their level of engagement; and reviewing sustainability performance results at regular status update meetings.

"As an organization evolves, it is crucial to continually assess and monitor its progress to ensure it is heading in the right direction and employees are completing the tasks and goals assigned," the researchers conclude. "This can be achieved via feedback loops, surveys, status updates, performance dashboards and committing managers to regular communication on their sustainability deliverables."

To download the complete 74-page report, visit the NBS website.

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. To contact this author, please send an e-mail to

For more social responsibility and sustainability resources, visit the ISM articles database.

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