SUSTAINABILITY. It’s the buzzword of the decade. But the thing is - it’s far more than a buzzword.When practiced correctly, sustainability is a concept of real substance which has a direct impact on both the value of a business and the wider world around it. Of course, the key words there are ‘practiced correctly’; practiced knowledgeably, critically, proactively, collaboratively, accountably and holistically.
But that’s easier said than done. Even for well-established, mid-sized companies (think 1000 to 8000 employees) who have a devoted sustainability manager, it can be difficult to develop an appropriate strategy which delivers on its promises whilst remaining congruent with - or even complimenting - wider organisational goals.
One of the central issues these sustainability managers face is engaging the whole team in the sustainability process; an issue that plays into the ideas of both holistic and accountable practice. It’s those latter two elements that we want to focus on today.
We want to explore the way that sustainability is a practice that should engage the entire team - from C-suite to support staff, and form a part of daily behaviours and activities, rather than grand, overblown revolutionary ‘flash-in-the-pan’ change that falls by the wayside only a few months later.
First though, let’s start with the basics:
Whilst sustainability in its general sense is talked about broadly, a more specific instance of it has become increasingly important for businesses - Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Developed by the UN, these represent 17 concrete areas of focus which all UN members have committed to improving. For a better understanding of how they can be applied, you can check out a recent podcast with Colin Curtis of Support the Goals.
The central take-home is: SDGs provide an established, recognised and well-structured way for thinking about and implementing sustainability.
Why are Sustainable Development Goals Important?
Would it seem like a complete cop-out if we offered you the simple answer: just because? It doesn’t take a degree in philosophy to recognise at least the possibility that there are inherent goods in this world: that there are ways of acting and being which carry with them an implicit rightness. And that seeking to act in ways that appear to be intrinsically ethical is fundamental to human flourishing, self-actualisation, and possibly even a fulfilment of our purpose.
Of course, perhaps you’re not convinced by this. Either because you’re wary of any argument as flimsy as just because, or because the Gordon Gecko in you rejects such hippy-dippy concepts as objective morality and is asking:
- What’s in it for me?
- Where’s the shareholder value?
- What’s the bottom line?
Whilst it’s unlikely that you are in fact a cartoon business villain who smokes cigars whilst fanning yourself with wads of cash, it’s understandable for businesses to want a tangible argument for implementing SDG measures which extend beyond merely arguing it’s the right thing to do.
Fortunately, as well as ethical arguments, there are a number of compelling practical reasons for businesses to invest in their sustainability practices, and find structured ways to implement, monitor and report on them.
Brand perception and reputation
The nature of the market is changing - regardless of what field you operate in. Younger generations are sceptical of the traditional capitalist status quo, and are increasingly seeking out businesses who operate in a more holistic manner; rejecting zero sum paradigms of competition which necessarily mean that success comes at the expense of someone or something else. They are seeking to buy from and work with businesses who see collaboration and mutual benefit as the core driving forces of their business.
Aligning practices with Sustainable Development Goals is an active way to demonstrate this kind of mindset - both to customers and investors.
An engaged workforce
Following on from the point above regarding a mindset change in younger generations, this also applies in the field of employment. Employees are increasingly seeking more than a pay check; they want a job which brings them a sense of challenge, fulfilment and purpose.
Employees who are able to find an employer who holds similarly aligned values are likely to be more loyal, more productive, more creative, more invested and more engaged. Visibly promoting SDG goals as part of the company’s wider strategic goals/purpose helps to attract and retain these kinds of employees.
Access to support resources
The Sustainable Development Goals are a global, political initiative that has been implemented by the United Nations General Assembly. All nation members have made a commitment to support these goals and achieve set targets. In meeting their political obligations, many governments have devoted funding and resource support to help businesses align their practices with the SDGs; these incentives can take the form of infrastructure investment, tax breaks and grants.
Committing too and achieving SDG goals (and providing evidence thereof) can contribute important financial benefits to the wider business strategy.
Jumping before you’re pushed
Whist ‘carrot’ based encouragement initiatives lie at the heart of many governmental strategies, ultimately, pursuit of these goals will be supported by legislative change: companies will have no choice but to make changes to their practices to improve working conditions and lessen their impact on the environment.
A scramble to make these changes later down the line will leave businesses in a precarious position, constantly playing catch-up. On the other hand, businesses which have taken a proactive approach to SDG implementation will have had time to find their feet and tweak their strategies to remain competitive and efficient in their markets.
How are businesses implementing SDGs, and what obstacles are they facing?
It’s key here to recognise that ‘sustainability’ is not a singular concept. The common go-to perception of sustainability tends to be the idea of reducing ecological impact, but in reality, the SDGs cover 17 different aspects, which range across environmental, educational, economic, social and institutional fields. So the reality is, there is no one way that businesses are practicing sustainability, and there is no one reason why they’re choosing to do so either.
And whilst there are a number of companies who have been hugely successful in their integration of SDG concepts and their implementation of specific sustainability projects, there are an equal number of companies who have the right motivation and intent, but are floundering when it comes to deployment.
The reasons are numerous, but they generally stem from a lack of expertise and knowledge in the area - and how to tie the theory of sustainability to the practice of business. Companies will often fail in one of two directions; they’re either entirely too nebulous and vague in their approaches - making grand statements without implementing tangible actions, or they’re entirely too singular in their focus - going all-in on individual, large-scale initiatives which are ill-conceived and poorly integrated into the wider mission.
Kohler (2017) provides a particularly interesting study on ‘failed’ sustainability initiatives; looking to identify the underlying causes of failure. The findings focus particularly on the idea that failure is more likely when organisations focus on one singular and sudden ‘project’, rather than instigating a pattern of wider behavioural and institutional changes where small, daily behaviours contribute to a wider goal.
Kohler’s work also identified that a lack of holistic thinking in the way the project was undertaken had an impact, particularly if it failed to take account of the wider political, economic, legal and social landscape (i.e, it wasn’t holistic), and was implemented in a top-down manner that did not engage or secure buy-in from the entire team.
In particular, this latter element tied in to a failure to measure and report on the initiative - meaning that the organisation had little accountability to the stakeholders involved, and those same stakeholders simply didn’t have an understanding of the ‘what’ or ‘why’ of the initiative - again contributing to their poor buy-in.
Small actions, taken by many = big change
That latter point of Kohler’s study is particularly important - the one regarding the idea that the lower down stakeholders didn’t understand the project, weren’t able to contribute to it meaningfully, and thus didn’t feel invested in securing its success. In his book ‘Small Actions,
Big Difference’, author CB Bhattacharya stresses the centrality of engaging employees at every level in the pursuit of a sustainability mission - encouraging and supporting small-level, individual action that amounts to large scale change. He cites this as the single most important thing a business can do to achieve its sustainability objectives and improve the wider strategic performance of the business as a whole.
If we’re going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals we need real action from businesses. That means not just the few people who work in CSR or sustainability, but every person working for the business needs to do their part. Engaging employees and guiding them on how to make a difference is probably the single most important thing any business can do.
Colin Curtis Managing Director at TBL Services | Founder at Support the Goals
What can businesses do better? The role of monitoring and reporting
We may be a bit biased here, but the role of monitoring and reporting in the pursuit of sustainability generally and SDGs specifically cannot be overstated. It isn’t a discreet activity, it’s a fundamental lynchpin to the entire process.
Providing a structure and framework for strategic sustainability
Firstly, by building in monitoring and reporting structures from the beginning, then companies are forced into thinking about their intentions critically, analytically, and strategically. Building monitoring metrics provides a framework for the entire initiative, and a more tangible overview of the business elements it touches upon.
In particular, a well-developed monitoring system founded upon best-practice elements ensures that companies avoid the above mentioned pitfall of being either too nebulous and indistinct in their efforts, or too singularly focused.
Securing employee buy-in and increasing motivation
Monitoring and reporting is also vital for continued engagement and motivation. It was identified above that the success of sustainability practices is dependent on the buy-in of employees if they are to achieve success, but also that being able to contribute directly and meaningfully to these sustainability objectives actively benefits and motivates employees - they want to participate.Having a clear role to play and being required to check-in regularly and report on their contributions gives employees something tangible and meaningful; and when you add in gamification and incentive elements, things get even better.
If companies are to secure the benefits of sustainability practice that were outlined at the out set - be that reputational, financial or logistical, then there needs to be evidence of those practices. Customers want to be sure that the sustainability claims made by companies are not mere puff, whilst investors want to be able to tangibly trace where their money has gone, and what benefits it has yielded. Measuring, monitoring and reporting - in ways that are visual, clear, authenticated and which communicate benefit - are key to this.
So why isn’t everybody reporting?
One of the central obstacles facing businesses of a certain size is that they can often fall into a no-man’s land. They generate data that is far too unwieldy to be managed by the ad-hoc systems that a small team can get away with (brightly colour spreadsheet, anybody?), but at the same time are not in the territory of developing the kind of proprietary management systems that the ‘Big Boys’ can indulge in.
A lack of knowledge and expertise can also be an obstacle. Sustainability is, ultimately, a relatively new discipline. Whilst the field receives a great deal of attention, empirical evidence and best practice guidelines are still relatively thin on the ground. Even firms with devoted sustainability managers often won’t know where to access the knowledge and expertise they need, meaning that they’re left engaging in a trial-and-error approach on their own.
It’s these two gaps that Task aims to plug particularly. With years of background in the field of sustainability, and active engagement with a wide range of organisations who are successfully practicing their sustainability objectives through the Task app, we are optimally positioned to collate both theoretical and practical knowledge in the field of sustainability, and to understand the nuances and context of its application. It is this knowledge that we can pass on clients - meaning that they don’t have to undertake the hard work of figuring things out for themselves.
Moreover, we don’t simply embed this knowledge in a one-size-fits-all application. Precisely because the field of sustainability is nuanced, complex and highly contextual, then our benefit comes not from developing some singular ‘ultimate’ model, but from taking an analytical, business-level approach; working with clients to gain a true understanding of their needs, and implementing a solution that meets them.
This makes us perfect for mid-sized organisations who don’t know who to turn to for either the knowledge or structural support they need in their sustainability endeavours. Neither an off-the-shelf the solution nor a break-the-bank bespoke (for that read - untested) ‘unicorn’ project.
Task represents a platform built on fundamental best practice sustainability elements and innovative technology - including an underpinning blockchain structure provided by Stellar, to increase security and audit abilities - and then allows for this to be customised, configured and scaled to the needs of the client; providing a solution that is flexible, targeted and specific - but also reliable, tested, quick and simple to implement, and highly affordable.
And at the heart of it all lies the philosophy of small actions and team engagement. After all - it’s in our name; we’re called ‘Task’, not ‘Super-big-project’, because we recognise that encouraging teams to contribute small, daily actions - completing individual ‘tasks’ - gives a sense of achievability and engagement, driving motivation and thus, ultimately, delivering on the success of the objective.
Because ultimately, sustainable practice is in everyone’s best interests.
Are you looking for a simple way to combine all your sustainability data in one place and report on impact? Would you like to make your teams part of your social missions? Get in touch for more information or a demo of the Task SDG platform!