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What is holding leaders back from tackling sustainability?

From her experience as a sustainability consultant, IML ANZ Member Kate Ross has seen many leaders suffering from paralysis when it comes to sustainability in their business. She explains why imperfection shouldn’t hold you back from action and her advice for how to go about forming and implementing a sustainability strategy.

The rewards of sustainability are big for business. According to research from Deloitte Insights, businesses that lead with purpose can expect faster growth and higher market share gains than their competitors. Then there’s the flow on benefits of increased customer satisfaction and employee engagement and retention.

So, why aren’t more businesses adopting a purpose-driven approach and implementing sustainability initiatives? Often, it’s a misconception about what’s involved or uncertainty about where to start. Here’s what you need to know about taking action and making a difference, it’s not as complex as you might think.

Good intentions

Any delay in tackling sustainability usually isn’t caused by lack of good intentions. There are so many genuine people and leaders who want to make a difference. Whether their personal drivers lie in making a difference for people or the planet, they are motivated and driven to shift the needle as a force for good.

The challenge for many is knowing where to start. Depending on the organisation’s sustainability track record, it can be complex, heavy and hard. How are you supposed to tackle a carbon reduction strategy within the business? How do you untangle years of practice to do business in a more sustainable way? 

The truth is, we can’t let these fears become barriers to sustainability. If a business is to survive into the future, it’s not a choice about whether to take action but when. 

There’s no line in the sand

Sustainability isn’t an end goal. There’s no line in the sand. And there likely never will be. There will always be new, different and better ways of approaching sustainability in a business.

That’s not something that we should find daunting. Rather, it’s something to look forward to. Sustainability is about progress, not perfection. It’s about continuous improvement towards business goals. 

There are no perfect solutions. And waiting around for one is only going to make it harder for the business to reach their end goal. Having issues in your business that can’t be overcome immediately doesn’t need to stop you from making a start, setting goals and beginning to make positive changes.

Strategy and action

Once you start diving into sustainability, you’ll likely find that it’s a Pandora’s box. There’s so much you can do… but you have to start somewhere. Where do you start? With a materiality assessment to identify the issues that matter most in the context of your business. Then you can start to prioritise these issues into a strategic action plan. 

Often, what seemed like a barrier isn’t a priority for now in any case. All of a sudden, the walls are down and you can start to take that necessary imperfect action towards the bigger picture. 

The important thing here is that you do take action. A sustainability strategy stuffed in a drawer is worthless. Keep your action plan realistic so that it is achievable. Make the first step a simple one and build from there. All of those early steps add up to create momentum and positive impact.

There’s no denying that for a business starting today, it’s easier to incorporate purpose into planning from day one. That’s not to say those businesses won’t make mistakes. Sustainability isn’t a perfect science. If you have a 10-year-old business, or even a 100-year-old one, it’s a more complex proposition but one you should start all the same.

Collaboration = amplification

While this is absolutely a project that needs to be led by the business leaders, it shouldn’t sit within a silo. You’ll see the greatest impact when you make changes and implement initiatives across the business.

When you include your teams in the process of identifying what matters, you’ll likely discover people within the organisation who are really keen to work on this. You can then put your brightest – and most enthusiastic – minds to work to come up with solutions that drive positive outcomes.

Bringing the team along for the journey puts you a step ahead for the change that’s required. Sustainability is all about changing behaviours. Small shifts can lead to big results but that requires buy-in from across the organisation.

This is also an opportunity to engage your business partners and suppliers for a full value chain approach. They may share similar goals and working together can amplify your impact.

Authenticity and transparency

Let’s be clear here. Simple steps doesn’t mean greenwashing, that is taking meaningless action to look good to your customers. Greenwashing won’t cut it with your customers and it will have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve.

It’s a sustainability fallacy that many leaders fall into. They know the business is far from perfect so they either stall altogether and take no action or they try to make the situation look better than it really is.

There is no expectation of perfection. There is no expectation that you’ll build a sustainable business model overnight. There is no expectation that you have all the answers.

What your customers, stakeholders and suppliers do expect is that you’re setting measurable goals and working towards them, authentically and transparently. If there’s something problematic in the business, address it. Outline what actions are in place to tackle it and the timeframe for those actions. If you don’t, everyone will be talking about the elephant in the room rather than all the good you’re actually doing.

As uncomfortable as it is, this is the kind of transparency that’s required. If you’re doing nothing, you’ll be called out on it. What you won’t be called out on is the areas you’re genuinely addressing, even if they aren’t perfect right now.

The real competitive advantage

Addressing the table stakes of sustainability – things like carbon emissions, water quality, fair wages and energy – have become an expectation of doing business. The perspective on these is that they’re part of being good global citizens and not something to differentiate a business. 

The real competitive advantages for business lay outside this minimum benchmark standard. Go beyond the basics and switch your thinking beyond doing less harm to considering ways the business can do more good. As the business evolves, sustainability will move from being a silo strategy to your business as usual. And that’s just the way it should be.


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