Sustainable sustainability programs

Identifying and prioritizing opportunities for improvement is key to crafting a sustainability program that sticks
By John Williams, Woodard & Curran December 1, 2008

The global economy continues to drive demand for natural and social capitals upward and concerns and requirements for protecting our environment grow. The current financial crisis creates significant uncertainty about economic security, and there are compelling reasons to look hard at the long-term sustainability of every industry.

As companies in all sectors race to assess, prioritize and implement sustainability initiatives, many fail to lay the proper foundation. Without strategic priorities based on a systematic self-assessment, the most well-intentioned sustainability programs often fail to reach their potential. Any benefits that may be realized by reaching for obvious low-hanging fruit are usually short lived due to unclear priorities and system failures.

By jumping into the middle of the process without investing the time and resources to adequately identify and prioritize opportunities and establish systems to drive and manage change, many companies are setting themselves up for problems down the road.

Laying the groundwork

Launching a sustainability program by implementing obvious projects such as a formal recycling program or purchasing office paper with recycled content, takes little time to organize and execute and, with some luck, early success can be achieved. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is not effective in the long-term. Lack of sufficient process to support programs, changes in personnel and absence of documented systems can lead to the effort’s failure.

Truly effective sustainability programs require time at the beginning spent on thinking through the objectives and desired outcomes. Time spent up front developing the long-term vision, identifying and prioritizing risks and opportunities, clearly defining roles and responsibilities and mapping out the process is directly proportional to the pay-off.

At the outset it is important to identify key stakeholders and get their buy-in. Internal stakeholders include top management, plant staff and corporate departments. External stakeholders that should be considered for inclusion may include regulators, members of the board of directors, neighbors or interested non-governmental organizations.

The list of stakeholders need not be exhaustive, but it’s important that groups that can have an effect on the initiative’s long-term success are represented. Leverage the experience and interests of the stakeholders, as appropriate, to help craft the vision and the desired outcomes, which often include reduced energy costs, improved brand recognition and improved employee satisfaction, as well as reduced negative environmental impacts overall.

Building a foundation

A successful sustainability initiative relies on a thorough assessment of a company’s current operations, management systems, risks and opportunities. This provides a baseline for comparison with accepted environmental, social and economic indicators. Though environmental, social and economic indicators together compose the “Triple Bottom Line,” the primary focus of this article is the environmental facet of sustainability.

A comprehensive sustainability baseline assessment should be conducted to establish current impacts and provide a management tool to prioritize future action. This assessment examines quantitative and qualitative data on a company’s environmental impacts, including energy management, greenhouse gas emissions, materials use and water use.

The assessment also provides a list of the most significant opportunities for improvement. It will show where a company is doing well and where progress can be made. It will allow objective analysis of what sustainability initiatives will offer the greatest benefit and should be given the highest priority. The baseline is also a very effective tool to inform and educate stakeholders.

Sustainable sustainability

To build a sustainability program that will survive and thrive over the years, there must be a management system to support it. This is absolutely critical but is often overlooked. Without a management system, roles and responsibilities are often unclear; there are insufficient systems to control, monitor and record key aspects of the implementation plan; and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to measure success. A sustainability program should be managed like a compliance program with clearly defined responsibilities, procedures and lines of reporting.

Stakeholder participation is crucial here. Investing time in brainstorming initiatives to implement will help solidify support for the effort. The list of possible initiatives must be prioritized based on a company’s ability to implement them, their relevance to established goals and any other factors important to the company.

A company should work through the entire process of baselining, goal setting and building a management system. It is possible to jump right into the initiatives, but it is extremely difficult to build and maintain momentum, and nearly impossible to demonstrate real success to your employees, your peers and your customers.

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