I’ve noticed a difference in the corporate conversations around sustainability recently. As cofounder of a strategy consultancy focused on helping corporates through transformation, I used to spend a lot of my time delivering the “burning platform” speech about sustainability to corporate boardrooms. I spent time — and would sometimes make people cry — convincing them about the urgency to go green.
But that has changed. “We don’t need the burning platform narrative,” one corporate executive told me recently. “We know we have to act. What we need is a plan.”
Yes, there are occasional setbacks, like Unilever’s recent "Mayogate", where an activist investor attacked the company’s “obsession” with purpose and suggested that a company that felt the need to define the purpose of mayonnaise had “clearly lost the plot”.
But most of the rest of the corporate world is on board with the sustainability imperative. More than 80% of global GDP is now covered by a net zero target. The question that's now keeping boardroom members on the edge of their seat is not the why or the what when it comes to sustainability, but the how.
Many freeze when they try to move past the simple early stage of target setting, projects and initiatives
And that is becoming a problem. Many freeze when they try to move past the simple early stage of target setting, projects and initiatives. In many ways, it reminds me of the days of digital transformation. Getting a website up and running was the easy bit — but it took years for boards to realise that truly going digital meant a complete upheaval of their corporate engines. Here’s what corporate leaders can learn from that digital transformation experience and apply to the sustainability challenge.
With that in mind, here are seven steps to fast-track the how of sustainability:
1/ Slice the elephant
Slicing this overwhelming challenge into its component parts and visualising the journey in small steps rather than giant leaps is the first exercise we recommend.
A big part of this is education, in terms of the concepts and vocabulary around sustainability. What’s the difference between net zero and carbon neutral? What are scope 3 emissions? Not many of us can answer these questions accurately even today.
At Re_Set we routinely disguise education sessions as ‘strategic workshops’ to bring everyone on the journey without creating an embarrassing void between the experts and the neophytes. For the rest of the journey, sustainability strategy is no harder or different to any other type of strategy that you might have to put together as a board. Never forget though that this is an elephant — and a wholesale transformation is needed.
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2/ Acknowledge everyone’s fears
The members of your leadership team all have different fears around sustainability that will need to be addressed. The CFO is afraid of the cost of a sustainability strategy, because of the perception that it will cost more to make sustainable products or services — not to mention the potential fines and taxes.
The marketing director is worried about the customers and how they’ll react to a different proposition. Operations is worried about upheaval to the supply chain. And the CEO is afraid and excited in equal measure because of the scale of the threat and opportunity.
Not engaging emotionally with your team is a missed opportunity
One of the ways we deal with this challenge is to start most projects with a collective intelligence workshop, where fear often transforms into excitement and all stakeholders come out feeling they own the outcomes.
3/ Make it personal
Sustainability is one of the only corporate strategy topics I know that has the power to touch the heart as well as the head. Therefore, not engaging emotionally with your team is a missed opportunity. By connecting the head and the heart, you will unleash the true power of sustainability, not just to achieve that change but to also create a purposeful environment that motivates employees well beyond the call of duty.
One of the CEOs we worked with described how our sustainability strategy project ignited a sustainability movement across the organisation. And who says movement says action! Once head and heart are connected, ideas, initiatives and projects will flourish, and even if fear remains, purpose and ambition will trump it.
4/ Just do it
When people ask “well, what do we do now?” we often reply: “Do something, somewhere, now”. Getting going with initiatives no matter how small, is a great path to unleash momentum.
When people ask “well what do we do now?” we often reply: “Do something, somewhere, now
With one client, we started with something as small as coming up with a new reduced-carbon-impact menu for the staff canteen. People got involved, the movement grew, and the snowball of impact had started. From there, you connect initiatives with the top-down strategy and the right governance, so action does not equal chaos, and you are on the right track.
5/ Cosy up to your competitors
There’s safety in numbers. When the scale of the digital opportunity first became clear, it created unprecedented and unimaginable partnership opportunities — such as the click and collect arrangement between retail giants eBay and Argos.
When it comes to sustainability, the opportunities to partner are there if you know where to look. The Fashion Pact, which sees retailers work together to address sustainability, is a great example, as is the Watch and Jewellery Initiative created by Cartier and Kering. They describe this as being “driven by a common conviction that the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and aspirations for a sustainable industry can only be achieved through collaborative initiatives”.
6/ Don’t forget to keep making money
Leaders seem to be spending a lot of time agonising over commerciality versus sustainability, thinking it’s an either/or decision. But they’re totally interlinked. Look at it this way: if you don’t make a profit, you won’t have a business with which to be purposeful — and you can’t make an impact of any kind.
Last year we worked with a large clothing retailer who wanted us to demonstrate the commercial viability of sustainability, which we did through a combination of “sticks” and “carrots”. The “sticks” we highlighted outlined the cost of doing nothing, including upcoming taxes, regulatory hurdles and consumer backlash, while the “carrots” focused on higher market share and basket sizes.
Former Bank of England chief Mark Carney described the transition economy as 'the greatest commercial opportunity of our time'
Many non-financial arguments were used that were just as powerful as the numbers-based KPIs too, such as the increase in trust and reputation, strength of relationships with all stakeholders including supply chain and communities, and the internal resilience created by a motivated and aligned workforce. They understood they could have both purpose and profit.
And I predict they won’t be alone in this for much longer. Former Bank of England chief Mark Carney has described the transition economy (a move to a net-zero future) as “the greatest commercial opportunity of our time”.
7/ Don’t appoint a chief sustainability officer
Think of sustainability transformation like the digital transformations of old — we can learn lessons from the way companies evolved their boards at that time. The then-newly introduced "chief digital officer" role was quickly superseded by the chief customer officer, as businesses realised that digital needed to flow across the entire organisation.
If you already have or are thinking of appointing a chief sustainability officer — are you in danger of making the same mistake? If you genuinely believe sustainability needs to be inherent in your business, what you really need is a chief society officer or even a chief planet officer. Give society and nature a seat at the table and listen to their voices.