If your business doesn’t have a sustainability culture, it should

If your business doesn’t have a sustainability culture, it should

Suppose you saw these findings from a global study of more than 3,700 students…

  • 44 percent say they would accept a lower salary to work for a company with better environmental practices.
  • About 20 percent say they wouldn’t want to work for companies with bad environmental practices, regardless of salary.
  • They strongly believe environmental action is profitable for companies and that environmental protection improves economic growth creates jobs.

Your reaction might be along the lines of, “Well, you know, kids today!”

But you might find the results a bit more motivational if you knew that the students in this survey conducted by Yale University attended 29 top business schools. These “kids today” will be your employees and customers tomorrow, and you’ll pay a price if you ignore their sentiments.

Sustainability culture now a must

Tom Bateman, a professor of management at the University of Virginia, put it well in a recent Greenbiz article: “Sustainability has reached a level of strategic imperative. The needed discourse is no longer about whether to incorporate sustainability into strategy and operations, or even how to do it — but how to do it better. One solution, begging for more widespread application, is to develop a strong culture of sustainability.”

What, exactly, is a culture of sustainability?

To answer that, first let’s define “sustainability.”

What better source than the Harvard Business School? “Sustainability in business generally addresses two main categories: the effect business has on the environment and the effect business has on society.”

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It’s safe to say there was a time, not so long ago, when businesses that cared about those things were in the minority. Much of the public was more likely to see business as contributors to pollution and other environmental degradation, or a neutral force, at best — and certainly not problem solvers.

Today, businesses need sustainability plans that produce sustainable action — whether or not their products or services directly relate to the environment.

So, a sustainability culture means a business has a clearly articulated set of environmentally relevant values and goals embedded throughout the organization, from the C-suite to entry-level employees.

Benefits outweigh costs

One of the biggest reasons why some companies resist embracing sustainability is they think the costs will outweigh the benefits. They need to read a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that says, “Embedded sustainability efforts clearly result in a positive impact on business performance.”

The authors note:

“Many business leaders have the erroneous perception that one can have profits or sustainability, but not both. This probably has its roots in Milton Friedman’s 50-year-old, but still influential, thesis that the only business of a business is profit as well as a hangover from the 1970s and 80s, when low-quality, high-priced environmental products failed in the market and early socially responsible investing delivered low returns. That conventional wisdom has now reversed.”

In fact, studies show that consumers today are willing to pay more for products from environmentally conscious businesses. Investors are taking notice too, especially as sustainability practices become trackable. High performance on ESG (environmental, social, and governance factors) is found to correlate with financial performance.

And a culture of sustainability can actually save businesses money by producing operational efficiencies.

So, among the advantages of businesses embracing sustainability are: improving recruitment, reducing costs, and increasing profits, not to mention reputation enhancement. And let’s not forget making the planet healthier, safer, and more livable.

But it better be real

That’s a convincing list of reasons. But there’s a big caveat: It better be real.

You can’t just declare that you care about sustainability. Creating a true sustainability culture takes planning and thought that needs to include people from all areas of the business. Its’s not top down. Conscientious businesses listen to their employees, customers, board, and suppliers and then make authentic changes. This this is not a PR exercise — but it is very much a communications exercise.

Every step of the way, businesses need to state their underlying assumptions as part of an open process with clearly spelled out — though they might change and evolve — goals. Half measures won’t do. Some companies look with pride at their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts and feel they can check the “sustainability” box. Far from it. CSR is a good start, but that’s all it is.

At Taft Communications, we see this every day. More of our clients are looking for more than a quick fix or a glib line. They want to make a difference. And they have a sense of responsibility, not just to their financial bottom line but to the broader community, even to the planet itself. They see that the dynamics that shape our lives are changing. People are experiencing shifts in how they view their lives, their world, and what matters most to them.

How to get started

One of the most important things for getting started is to dismiss all those reasons for not starting, like these:

I’m not good at the “vision thing”

No one can make the planet sustainable all by themselves and no one can a create a sustainability culture all by themselves. This is a great opportunity to give your employees voice, and listen to them. Creating any kind of culture — especially a lasting, productive one — isn’t a top-down exercise. Find out from what your team members want for their community and the world. Aspiration is a solid basis for a strong culture. Form a committee, look at the cultures of other companies and institutions. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Open your mind to such concepts as purpose and meaning and see where they take you.

We have too much work to do

So make creating a sustainability culture part of your work. Engage you team in figuring out how you all can work more efficiently. Ask for suggestions, have contests, give out awards. Sustainability starts with your own walls. You’d be surprised how this can get rolling. It might start with seemingly small things like turning off appliances at night, getting some plants, or going paperless. Remember the survey mentioned earlier: People want this — especially the new generation of employees and customers, the ones you can’t do without.

I don’t want to get into politics.

The good news is you don’t have to. Columbia University Prof. Steven Cohen said it well: “People like to breathe. Rich people, poor people, Tea Party Republicans, progressive Democrats, old people, young people, Americans, people from other countries — all are united in the biological necessities of being human. Water, food and air are all better when they are not filled with toxic substances.” You can set workable boundaries and, within them, revolutionize your business in ways that stay ahead of the curve and, in the process, make your place a better place to work.

Bottom line: sustainability is a “thing” today and it will be tomorrow. From Harvard Business Review: “Executives can no longer afford to approach sustainability as a ‘nice to have’ or as solid function separated from the ‘real’ business. Those companies that proactively make sustainability core to business strategy will drive innovation and engender enthusiasm and loyalty from employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and investors.”

Does all this put too big a burden on business? Certainly, governments have a considerable role to play in guiding the Earth back to sustainability. But no one sector can do it alone, and business has the reach and magnitude to lead.

As Joseph Holt of the CFO Network noted in a recent Forbes commentary, “Hopefully current business leaders will earn the gratitude rather than the scorn of future generations by doing just that while time allows.”

Need help crafting and communicating a culture of environmental sustainability at your organization?

greening your company culture

Join us for a panel discussion on how effective communications can contribute to an authentic culture of environmental sustainability that’s woven into the fabric of employee experience on May 11 at noon ET / 9 a.m. PT. Register today.

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