“Why don’t they care?” Why top-down sustainability strategies are often doomed to fail

Effective sustainability strategies must speak the language of local employees and other stakeholders, writes Collective Responsibility managing director Richard Brubaker.

interface CSR main
Interface and the Zoological Society London are working with 27 fishing villages in the Philippines to reuse their discarded nets and refashion them into nylon carpets. At each collection site, the nets are cleaned, and gathered into bags, loaded onto local boats, and transported to the collection hub where they are compressed into bales ready for shipping. Image: Interface

Whether catalysed by global agreements, changes in local regulation, or the rising expectations of external stakeholders or consumers, the calls to action for firms to address the issues of environmental, social, and economic sustainability have grown louder. For some, too loud to ignore.

Heeding this call to action means letting go of a compliance-driven mindset, and strategically positioning the organisation as a future leader. But as the world debates what the impact of a 4 (perhaps 6) degree change to the climate will be, who is ultimately responsible for acting, and how this will affect the economy, firms who have developed global frameworks and strategies are beginning to find that these are more difficult to execute than initially planned.

Key to this process, more often than not, is whether the global leadership team is able to construct a strategy that will effectively engage and catalyse its local stakeholders, particularly its own employees.  Employees who the firm is relying on to create local-level programs, interact with external stakeholders, and drive the firm’s sustainability strategy forward.

“[If] employees don’t feel that their company is taking care of them, [they] lose the commitment for the engagement. Employees support me because they understand we are doing something good, [they] identify themselves with the culture.” – Asia Sustainability Director

For many global firms, engaging local stakeholders, particularly employees, has been a challenge. This has stymied the rollout of sustainable visions and programs, and left many a sustainability director asking whether or not their people “care”.

This disconnect highlights not only the difficulties of communication between global headquarters and regional business units, but more importantly, the different realities that are faced by individuals at each level. While global executives may be worried about climate commitments and carbon regulations, the tangibility of this issue is lost on populations who are living in cities enshrouded in concerns over the impact of smog on their health.

Even though, in reality, these two issues are created by the same failures in energy and transportation!

The takeaway lesson is this: That your people do care, and they are looking for ways to participate in creating sustainable business programs, but you need to speak their language and include their voice as part of the development, and execution, of strategies.

To effectively do this, firms should take the time to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the key (sustainability) concerns faced by country level staff, and what is the language that they are using?
  2. What is the impact to global programming when vision and mission are aligned, or misaligned, between global and country level?
  3. For firms whose true intentions are to be a solutions provider, or to catalyse change, how effective is a top-down approach to development and engagement?
  4. Would firms be better to develop bottom-up engagements where the culture of the firm is not “forced” through education, but instead flexible enough to allow for a multitude of programs that are specific to the local needs that a traditional strategy is unable to capture?
  5. Do KPIs drive true change, or simply generate a “good enough” mentality?

Once answered, it is the responsibility of the firm’s executive leadership, and those supporting the rollout of strategies, to ensure that the tangibility of issues is embedded into the development of programs and partnerships, creating an opportunity for local markets to take ownership over local-level programs that may be tactically different in their vision from headquarters, but achieve the desired impact.

Your people do care, and they are looking for ways to participate in creating sustainable business programs, but you need to speak their language and include their voice as part of the development, and execution, of strategies.

In the case of carpet manufacturer Interface, expanding on the success of their Net-Works programme was just such an opportunity. A programme piloted in the Philippines to turn discarded fishing nets into carpet fibre was aligned completely to the company’s own mission to become a zero footprint manufacturer. 

A new source of recyclable materials was identified, partnerships with local agencies and non-profits were developed, an economic model supporting the village was developed, and employees globally were engaged.

With the scale and scope of sustainability challenges growing by the day, and with the impact of these growing more tangible, it is time to create strategies that are as tangible and scalable as the risks and opportunities that they are in response to.

Without tangibility, the firm’s vision will fail to be realized, as employees, suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders find themselves unable to align with it. With tangibility, the firm will enable action and scale through its stakeholders. Most importantly, it will be able to create a culture of sustainability within the firm, and develop a company brand synonymous with responsible and sustainable business leadership.

Richard Brubaker is managing director, Collective Responsibility. This post is republished from the Corporate Citizenship blog.

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