Successful sustainability strategy takes true… | Gagen MacDonald

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Successful sustainability strategy takes true culture change

Jul 15, 2023

Over the past several years, we’ve seen a marked increase in public sensitivity to the role of corporations in society. This is especially true in regard to employee welfare concerns like fair wages, the health and safety of the workplace and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s also increasingly true about the ways we impact communities and the natural environment. Many companies today recognize that it’s good business to have strategies around sustainability; to put real time and care into more than just monetary profit. Still, in their approaches to sustainability, many companies fail to take the culture component seriously. They approach it as traditional Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG); as an external, public-facing topic. As a result, their initiatives frequently create more problems than they help solve.

ESG started as a matter of external reporting — as a way for investors to hold companies accountable for their sustainability practices — and it’s easy to see why companies tend to devote enormous amounts of time and effort toward the reporting side of sustainability. When done well, the reputational benefits of the strategies can reap immense benefits for businesses. But in today’s age, empty outward gestures don’t cut it. While external reports, lofty pledges or advocacy catered to ESG-focused investors can generate momentary buzz, companies too often build them for the short term. If they don’t align with stakeholders’ preferences and what your company can really do, moves like these will frequently risk polarizing employees, drawing accusations of hypocrisy or placing you in the unfortunate position of having no idea how to deliver on the commitments you’ve made.

The most successful companies approach sustainability as culture change — something that requires measured intention, employee buy-in and sustained changes to behaviors. It needs to start by meeting your people where they are, and empowering them from there.

If you want to build a broad coalition, the work needs to start with an inward lens. An APCO Worldwide study last year found that 78 percent of the U.S. public — and a majority on both sides of the political spectrum — favor taking action internally in response to a current event or issue, such as by changing an internal policy that impacts employees. There is far less support for companies only speaking out on issues in the media.

Still, in deciding how to take action on sustainability, companies need to carefully choose the issues that matter most to their people. Sustainability strategy can manifest in a wide variety of different topics and strategies, and many of them have far more widespread support than the nebulous (and often politicized) umbrella term of “ESG.” For instance, while issues like abortion and gun policy tend to risk polarizing an employee base, the majority of Americans support companies taking a stand on matters related to income inequality, mental health, racial equity and healthcare access. The companies that find success with their sustainability strategies, wherever they are in the world, find the topics that truly unite employees, and they articulate their approaches in ways that build further buy-in.

They also help employees see themselves in the strategy and its impact. A few years ago, The Coca-Cola Company breathed life into its Live Positively platform. At the time, Coca Cola was driving a radical transformation across its business to reduce its environmental impact. While Live Positively had a clear reputational component, it was far more than an ESG campaign. Rather, the spirit of Live Positively became a path to growth across the enterprise, giving employees different options for how they could take part in the initiative. Engineers were empowered to design new bottles and ways of reducing waste; groups that wished to focus on their local environment could lead community cleanups; and leaders who pioneered new green practices in the office were recognized for their efforts. The more employees saw the impact they were making, the less skeptical they became of the program.

Coca-Cola found a topic in the environment that worked for its people and product, but many different causes within sustainability can be approached the same way. For Johnson & Johnson, it’s been the intersection of racial equity and healthcare access, with the company’s lauded Our Race to Health Equity program. Johnson & Johnson’s leaders haven’t just made a pledge or a new values statement; rather, they’ve changed several aspects of their business in line with their Credo — from hiring practices to the care models they invest in within communities to the partners they choose to collaborate with — in order to truly help close the racial health gap. Unilever, long a pioneer at the intersection of ESG and employee engagement, works with employees to crystallize their personal senses of purpose as a starting point to getting involved in the company’s different sustainability initiatives.

In all these cases, success came from balancing topics stakeholders care about with tangible, distributed ways to make impact. Reputational benefits followed, but make no mistake: the work started inside their walls.

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