In recent years, as sustainable business practices have become more prevalent across the board, the role of Vice President, Director, or Head of Sustainability have gone from somewhat obscure positions, to roles one sees being filled by nearly every Fortune 500 company, as well as small businesses across the United States and abroad.
A 2017 survey by McKinsey found that “Nearly six in ten respondents say that their organizations are more engaged with sustainability than they were two years ago,” with more than eight in ten respondents working in consumer packaged goods, and three-quarters of those in infrastructure saying the same. Seventy percent of respondents said that their companies have some form of sustainability governance in place, compared to just 54 percent three years earlier.
What is a Sustainable Business?
A sustainable business works to minimize any potential negative impact on the environment it may cause, whether through the creation of eco-friendly products, social initiatives, or other sustainable strategies. A sustainable business recognizes that a move toward greater sustainability within our businesses and a focus on creating a more circular economy is crucial.
While consumers and businesses alike are becoming more receptive to sustainability initiatives, communicating the value of sustainability within your organization can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. As Chief Sustainability Officer for Rubicon®, a software company born in the waste and recycling industry, I’m lucky that sustainability is built into the core of everything we do. I know, however, that this is not the case for all sustainability professionals. If you work at a large company, there is a good chance that even if the role of a sustainability professional exists within your organization, it doesn’t necessarily have the resources that other teams might enjoy. This means that you must be resourceful and rely on the support of other groups to execute on your goals. Similarly, if you’re a small business owner, the desire to follow sustainable business strategies might be strong, but budget constraints may not allow for much movement in this area.
After speaking with my entire sustainability team here at Rubicon, we’ve pieced together the five most important steps for sustainability professionals, and for those looking to implement sustainability practices into their own business.
Step #1: Explain the Intangible Benefits of Sustainability
There are very few companies on the planet that would say that they don’t want to protect the environment, even if operating sustainable business practices isn’t their number one priority. But unless they see a real, tangible benefit in making sustainable business models a core part of their platform, they’re unlikely to change their practices anytime soon.
Having a sincere focus on sustainability within your business is no longer just a nice-to-have; it’s a must have. One of the biggest challenges for sustainability professionals within an organization is being able to explain the intangible benefits of sustainability, such as the positive reaction that customers and potential customers have to your business, and how this positively impacts your bottom line, your brand value, and your competitive advantage.
Step #2: Articulate What Sustainable Business Practices Mean to Your Business
For sustainability to be actionable, it has to be contextualized. The intangible benefits of being known as a sustainable business and recognizing what sustainability means for your organization can be two very different things.
While an organization may choose to simply say “We’re a sustainable business,” in their messaging, this doesn’t say anything at a meaningful level of detail. The first challenge that any effective sustainability professional must tackle head on is to identify the specific sustainability-related challenges their organization is facing, including the organization’s myriad social and environmental impacts, and then finding a way to quantify and translate those environmental and social impacts into financial, operational, or other metric-driven terms that can be easily understood by the other business functions.
As an example, while an intangible benefit of being known in your community as a sustainable business can lead to an increase in consumer preference for your product or service, in practice for your company this could mean running a sustainable supply chain, which translates into the processes that it takes for your company to produce a product or service from beginning to end, or it could mean enacting a sustainability program within your organization (see below) that allows all employees to take part in your company’s sustainability efforts. Other ways to create quantitative sustainability results could be reducing waste generation or relying upon renewable energy.
Step #3: Enact Sustainability Programs
Needless to say, you can’t claim to run or work at a sustainable business if you don’t engage in sustainable business practices. One way to do this is by enacting sustainability programs; initiatives which focus on making your business, and the employees within it, follow sustainable best-practices.
For example, educating your employees on proper recycling practices and the dangers of recycling contamination through aspirational recycling, which can lead to entire loads of recycling being sent to landfills.
While it will always be difficult to measure the short-term ROI of programs such as these, when we look at the larger picture and consider a longer timeline, it becomes clear that enacting a sustainability program within your business has far reaching positive implications. Investments that focus on strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria frequently outperform other investments in the long run, with companies following sustainable business practices performing better than ever before.
Step #4: Engage the Workforce
Even though sustainability is a pretty pervasive idea, most people are only just beginning to learn about its importance.
In most businesses, employees aren’t measured on sustainability-related performance metrics, when in practice most of these organizations would benefit from each and every employee having part of their performance compensation tied to the company’s environmental impact. Whether you’re already a sustainable business that’s working to bring your employees on board, or you’re a small business owner wanting to instill the importance of sustainable business practices into your part-time weekend employees, it’s critical to convey how sustainability can and should be a part of your business’s core mission.
Making the case to different stakeholders in language that they can understand—language that shows them how sustainability is valuable for their business—is key. In a large organization, speaking with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) about how improving your sustainable business practices will reduce your costs or increase your top line, and over what timeframe, is essential to securing buy-in.
Step #5: Measure Sustainability Performance
The measurement and tracking of sustainability metrics is still a developing field.
The biggest problem you will face when attempting to get buy-in from different stakeholders about the importance of being a sustainable business is the simple fact that it is difficult to measure what a particular set of sustainability initiatives will do for your business’s brand in terms of your bottom line.
While you can often say that “X” initiative will result in “Y” financial returns and/or “Z” customer retention, this is much harder to say for sustainable business strategies.
Most sustainability reports don’t currently allow for direct comparison between companies due to a lack of consistency between the reporting and terminology used. This needs to change in order for a company’s sustainability performance to be truly tracked and measured. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), a San Francisco-based non-profit that launched in 2012 to connect businesses and investors on the financial impacts of sustainability, are currently using their standards and tools to implement principles-based reporting frameworks and communicate sustainability data more efficiently and effectively to investors. Efforts such as this, backed by high-profile names including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Mary Schapiro, are helping to create greater consistency in sustainability performance measurement for businesses going forward.
If you have any questions, or you’re interested in speaking with my team about how you can work to create more sustainable business practices, please reach out to Rubicon’s Sustainability team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.
David Rachelson is Chief Sustainability Officer at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.