The dark art of corporate sustainability

Working in a large corporation’s in-house sustainability team can be daunting; Spark Strategy strategic advisor Laura Reed shares tips on how to achieve an meaningful shift in organisational culture and practices.

sustainability team meeting
The private sector is under ever-increasing pressure to address the issues of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Image: Shutterstock

I recently had a conversation with a peer who has started in an in-house corporate sustainability role. They wanted to talk about how to inject some fresh energy into their organisation’s journey around sustainability.

How do you get things moving? We talked about vision, then building and embedding a strategy. Wouldn’t that be stepping on other people’s toes? Yes, it will involve this! Where should the sustainability team sit within a business? As close to strategy, risk and corporate affairs as possible.

Inspired by that conversation, what follows are reflections from working within three in-house sustainability teams in large businesses and now consulting to a range of organisations on their journeys.

Be brave and realistic

Being in an in-house sustainability role requires a certain amount of bravery. You are the odd one out, generally not driving to a sales or revenue target. You are an intrapreneur trying to change things, to minimise harm and create positive impact.

This will mean you’ll ruffle feathers and probably upset a few people along the way, so you need to be brave!

But remember you do work for a business, and what you do has to be realistic, it has to have a business case that links back to and supports the business’ vision and core work. In the beginning it’s fine to admit that you’re at the beginning, you can build iteratively and work towards more aspirational goals.

In time, your work can even generate savings for the organisation or create new forms of value – and this is when things really get exciting! For more on this idea see: Shared Value.

Build a business case

To get started you’re going to need a business case, this comes even before you start your strategy. Ask yourself why does it make sense for my business to invest in sustainability and which initiatives will deliver the most value and impact? Here’s some inspiration.

Engage, engage, engage

Cultivate relationships at all levels of the business and have lots of coffees. Try to find the other people like you, the other “intrapreneurs” also trying to move the agenda forward. You often find these people at the front line – the people delivering the program, managing the operations or working with the customers.

Ask them about their work and how they see it linking back to environmental or social impact. Try mapping your stakeholders and be methodical in reaching out across the business.

Then you need a senior champion to back your work, do some research and find out which leaders in your business are likely to be supporters, then take them a compelling business case and use their influence to open doors for your agenda.

Connect the dots and communicate

Far too often, especially in large organisations, there’s already a lot going on that serves a sustainability agenda – it’s just happening all over the place and it’s not coordinated or holistically communicated.

It can just sound like a whole lot of noise: community, diversity and inclusion, environment, sustainable supply chain, Indigenous – it’s all sustainability and can be pulled together by developing clear focus areas, a strategy and targeted communications.

It can just sound like a whole lot of noise: community, diversity and inclusion, environment, sustainable supply chain, Indigenous – it’s all sustainability and can be pulled together by developing clear focus areas, a strategy and targeted communications.

Become the person that knows what’s going on across the business and connect the dots – bring people together, facilitate conversations.

Help to build and communicate a vision for the business centered around sustainability. And don’t forget about communicating more broadly across the organisation too. Build your narrative and your storytelling skills. Here’s one great organisation that can help: Digital Storytellers.

Governance isn’t sexy, but really important

Next you’ll need a governance structure to support your work. Even in a smaller organisation governance will ensure that your strategy becomes more than a pretty diagram on your website. Ideally you want your strategy to be public (so even if the leaders change, the work keeps going) and to have clear targets against which you can measure performance.

Consider a governance group, a council or committee, and have senior leaders sign up to the delivery of the programs of work in your strategy and be accountable for measuring performance and pushing to reach targets. For more on this idea, start by reading this.

Find a support crew

And finally, find a support network outside of work to compare notes, share wins and losses and bounce ideas off. Look for others in your industry or across sectors who are on the same journey – ideally mix with those who are just getting started and some who are further down the track. A great leadership and networking program to consider is offered by the Centre for Sustainability Leadership.

Laura Reed is a strategic advisor at Spark Strategy. This post is republished from Pro Bono News with permission from the author.

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