Sustainability– the critical first steps

As with any major initiative, setting and achieving new corporate environmental goals requires careful planning. Nicolas Walden, Senior Director at The Hackett Group, outlines the three key criteria you should consider.

Over the past year, many businesses have announced ambitious environmental goals. Unilever, Microsoft, L’Oréal and many other companies have made bold commitments to sustainability focusing on carbon emissions, waste reduction, renewable energy, single-use plastics, and more.

It’s exciting, it’s uplifting, and it’s definitely the right thing to do. But unless like them you’ve already thought a lot about sustainability issues, don’t make your speech just yet.

As a procurement advisor to the Global 1000, I have seen many companies make promises before they are truly ready to undertake the work involved. Investors, employees, and customers push them to make a commitment, their communications department comes up with an objective that sounds good, and then before they know it, they’ve made an announcement. But they weren’t really ready for their close-up. They don’t actually know what comes next.

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to squander the goodwill and internal momentum such an announcement can generate. Nothing terrible happens right away, but by keeping the objective vague and distant and the measures to achieve it scattered and non-strategic, you set yourself up for disappointment, and depending on how your communications are handled, may even damage your company’s reputation internally with idealistic employees and externally with climate-focused consumers. More importantly, without proper planning and forethought, you are unlikely to accomplish your overall goal of making the world a better place for us all to live in.

The truth is that achieving success with a sustainability effort is no different than any other corporate objective. To make real progress, you must approach the challenge with sincerity, focus, and a strategic plan.

First, you have to decide what aspects of sustainability you want to make your highest priority. There are many possible approaches, but to find the right one for your company, you need to consider three sets of criteria:

   Stakeholders. Whose expectations are you trying to satisfy? Consumers, internal staff, investors, or even regulators? Prioritise the stakeholders for your effort, and understand their expectations.

   Drivers. Why are you doing it? Is it for revenue growth, market share, reputation, or simply because it’s the right thing to do? There can also certainly be more than one driver. But it pays to assess and understand them.

   Goals. In the context of the most invested stakeholders and these drivers, how would you define successful in terms of your sustainability program? And how will you get there?

Once you have a clear understanding of all these things, you can develop a sustainability programme that resonates with your mission and your culture. There is a plethora of options to choose from. A company that produces consumer packaged goods may want to think first about recycling, while a professional services company may want to focus initially on what it can do to reduce its carbon footprint by changing its travel policies or developing a benchmark for an industry it knows well.

Then, think carefully about what it will take to follow through on this programme. Make sure you have the internal support and the resources to fulfil it. If your programme involves your suppliers, be prepared to support the mentoring and educational outreach that will be necessary for you to have a genuine impact.

Finally, keep in mind that as tough as it is, it’s not impossible. Others have done it; others are doing it. As Paul Polman, the sustainability advocate and former Unilever CEO, has written, “the only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”

Nicolas Walden is a Senior Director, UK Programme Leader, Procurement and P2P Advisory for The Hackett Group, a global strategic consultancy. More information on The Hackett Group’s sourcing and procurement offerings is available here.

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