5 Ideas for Creating a Culture of Sustainability

Like all important strategies and visions, the best path to creating a culture of sustainability is to foster ownership across your employees and functions.

For most companies, sustainability is now an integral part of the business strategy. Creating a culture of sustainability within your organization drives investor decision-making, helps identify and mitigate risk, and can even spur product innovation.

Like all important strategies and visions, the best path to creating a culture of sustainability is to foster ownership across your employees and functions. When everyone understands this isn’t a niche initiative owned by one group, but rather there are real implications and opportunities for the company as a whole, they can better identify their own responsibilities.

What’s more, as sustainability becomes a bigger part of how modern business operates, various stakeholders, from investors to customers to regulators to potential employees, might have questions about a company’s sustainability commitments. Team members across different functions need to be prepared to answer these questions. It is not enough to just publish a report; every employee needs to be able to articulate the company’s commitments in conversations with stakeholders.

Here are five ideas for creating a culture of sustainability with your employees:

1. Give sustainability a recognizable internal identity.

One of the most important steps of creating a culture of sustainability is making sure everyone is on the same page as to what sustainability means to your organization. What is one of the best ways to get that alignment? Give it an identity that is memorable, recognizable and repeatable. Consider naming the initiative and creating a vision statement that teams can rally behind. Some companies have developed a logo that can be used as a visual cue to tell the team this initiative or request relates to company’s sustainability strategy..

2. Talk about sustainability with your employees – often.

Your team is going to have varying degrees of knowledge—and perceptions—about sustainability. It’s important to help them understand there is a real business case as to why the company has included sustainability-related goals and efforts in its plan. This could be to achieve cost savings from greater energy efficiency and waste reduction or to go after market growth for sustainable products. While some people want their employer to consider its social and environmental impact and will be onboard, there are others who will want to see that this benefits the company, and ultimately their paycheck.

But how? Start with the most common questions. Through a series of emails, intranet articles, and/or events, define what sustainability means at your organization, lay out the sustainability strategy and how different functions support it, talk about the benefits you expect, and explain and celebrate the behaviors you want to see in the team.

At its core, sustainability is about transparency. Continue to bring employees along with regular updates on what’s working and what’s not. If you do town halls, organize town hall meetings where your company leadership discusses sustainability progress and takes live questions. Continue email and intranet updates that celebrate wins, and discuss where progress is being made or being stalled.

It’s also important to learn together, so set up opportunities for teams to talk across functions, regions, sites, and more to share what they’re doing to support the sustainability strategy and what they’ve learned in the process.

3. Train the team on sustainability.

As noted above, team members across different functions need to be prepared to talk about and implement their part of your sustainability strategy and initiatives. Some of the teams that could benefit from training include:

  • Sales: As more customers care about sustainability in their supply chain, sales teams need to know how to speak about the sustainable benefits of your products or how to answer questions about packaging, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, etc.
  • Finance: As more countries issue climate disclosure regulations, the finance and accounting teams may be asked to support environmental and social data collection.
  • Operations: Those in your operations need to understand what changes are needed at their sites to support the goals, such as resource efficiency or waste reduction.
  • R&D: This team should be considering what sustainability attributes your customers are asking for and how you can design for those opportunities.
  • HR: Many employees want to understand a company’s commitment to corporate responsibility before taking a job, so this should become a regular conversation point during recruiting.

There are many ways to conduct trainings on sustainability, including in-person or digital trainings through a learning management system. Short video series also work well, especially for operations staff to reduce time off the floor. Training can be scaled depending on the company size and need. Some companies may have a greater need to train multiple functions and need to devote more resources, while others can keep the matter simpler and more targeted.

4. Make it part of every day for your frontline.

We’ve worked with many clients in manufacturing, mining and other industries where a significant part of their workforce is not sitting at a desk reading email every day. But we can learn from the successful way these industries have embedded safety-focused cultures within their sites and frontline employees.

What these industries have done well is find ways to keep safety top of mind every day, and we can do the same with sustainability.

  • Similar to the safety contact that they start each meeting with, talk about specific sustainability goals or reminders to begin each day.
  • Create teams of champions or ambassadors at each site who promote a culture of sustainability within their team. Empower those local teams to celebrate wins at their site, and give them a way to submit achievements to be recognized in the regular company email and intranet updates.
  • The sustainability tagline, name, or logo mentioned above can also be used in signage around the organization to keep it as a priority.

5. Make it part of your KPIs.

A line we hear a lot in sustainability is what gets measured, gets managed. An important step in creating a culture of sustainability is laddering up employees’ goals/KPIs to the larger sustainability strategy and goals. This is especially relevant to executive compensation and bonuses as many ratings agencies are grading companies on having tied leadership compensation to sustainability performance metrics. With other goals, like improving diversity and inclusivity, every employee could include a personal goal of how they can contribute, from participating in training to developing new recruiting strategies.

While a sustainability strategy helps companies identify sustainability-related market opportunities and manage sustainability-related risks to growth, fostering a sustainability mindset across your team is what brings that strategy to life and operationalizes it.

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