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Driving Sustainable Transformation: A Comprehensive Guide

  • What is a culture of sustainability?

    A culture of sustainability within an organization refers to a commitment to prioritizing environmentally-friendly practices and social responsibility across all facets of its operations. This entails a dedication to minimizing waste, conserving resources, and supporting the well-being of employees and communities. To foster such a culture, companies must actively engage their employees in sustainability initiatives and embed sustainable practices into their day-to-day activities and decision-making processes. This involves integrating sustainability principles into the organization's core values and mission, as well as fostering a work environment where sustainable practices are embraced and encouraged. By cultivating a culture of sustainability, organizations can not only contribute to positive environmental and social impacts but also gain a competitive edge and enhance stakeholder relationships in the long run.

    Building a culture of sustainability

    Developing a culture of sustainability generally begins by having a clear sustainable strategy and making sure sustainability is a key focus in everything the organisation does and stands for.  Additionally, it is crucial for all employees to comprehend the concept of sustainability and its alignment with the company's operations and their individual roles.  

    1. Sustainability and the organisation’s strategic management process

    According to Galpin et al.  In 2015, initiating a culture of sustainability across all organizational tiers commences by integrating sustainability into the strategic management process of the organization. This entails embedding sustainability within the company's mission statement, values, goal establishment, and strategic planning. Subsequently, sustainability will extend its influence to the HR strategies of the organization, including recruitment, advancement, and training practices.  

    Needless to say, this process cannot happen overnight.  It necessitates a comprehensive comprehension of the organization's influence and capacity for sustainable development, along with dependable data that form the foundation for SMART objectives and a sustainable strategy.  

    Here is where the good old KPIs play a central role. As managers and employees deal with many competing priorities, KPIs help them understand how to prioritise their time, efforts, and resources.

    KPIs are solid drivers of change. Therefore, it is imperative to introduce KPIs that will support the employees in advancing the organisation’s sustainability strategy.

     The organization should progress cohesively, requiring all employees to stay abreast of developments in the strategic management process. Furthermore, it is vital that employees not only stay informed about the organization's updated mission, values, goals, and strategy but also acquire the tools to comprehend them. Hence, the focus shifts to the importance of knowledge enhancement.  

    2. All employees should gain common ground on sustainability

    Employees are at the core of an organisation’s culture. It is essential that employees comprehend the essence of sustainability and its relevance to their daily tasks. Sustainability is a process, and employees should recognize the effects of their behaviors, both within the workplace and at home, to appreciate its intricacies. Developing a profound comprehension of sustainability principles enables employees to harmonize personal and organizational values, fostering self-assurance and a deeper connection with sustainability practices and motivating them to discuss and act on sustainability. This will create the foundation for a strong culture of sustainability. Moreover, it will empower employees to achieve positive change on personal and professional levels.

     The company can enhance its culture of sustainability by ensuring that its reward system is also aligned with sustainability.  Recognition, rewards, and acknowledgment should be linked to sustainable practices within the company. This approach communicates to employees that sustainability is a core priority and that progress in sustainability initiatives is highly valued as an integral part of the organizational culture.  

     Fostering a culture of sustainability also plays a crucial role in talent retention within organizations.  Research showed that morale was 55% higher in organisations with solid sustainability programs and employee loyalty was 38% better.

    3. Engage employees to express sustainability in what they do

    An organisation is a team, albeit one formed by thousands of people scattered all over the globe in many cases. Therefore, employees must be inspired and supported to think sustainably about their work and how sustainable practices can be implemented in their teams and departments.

    Furthermore, they are the ones that understand at first hand the prospects, limitations, and needs of their activities. That is why employees should be encouraged to think critically about their work and brainstorm ideas that would advance sustainability in their divisions. For this, the organisation should openly foster a safe space for employees to express their thoughts and promote sustainable thinking. Moreover, the organisation should provide a structure for inducing change through support from managers and colleagues. This shows that sustainability is one of the core values and that the organisation nurtures sustainable initiatives and mindsets.

    4. Explore decision-making and creative problem-solving


    When striving towards a culture of sustainability, it is important to understand the complexity of decision-making and how personal biases can influence it. Complex decision-making involves navigating trade-offs and dilemmas and is always influenced by previous experience and beliefs.

    Decision-makers should identify challenges and opportunities to take action and create a positive impact. Moreover, including a range of different stakeholders in determining challenges and identifying potential opportunities maximises the potential for change across stakeholders.

    5. Lead by example

    Managers are the ones that can advance a culture of sustainability most efficiently. As employees look up to their leaders, managers should demonstrate that the organisation’s sustainable mission and values are not just empty words meant for branding, but the core of its activities. This can come in the form of sustainable initiatives, drawing attention to sustainable achievements, and actively portraying sustainability as a main personal and organisational focus.

    Repetition is key in learning and creating new habits. That is why sustainability should become part of the narrative in every interaction between management and employees, from senior board meetings to sub-departments Friday breakfasts. To take it a step further, senior managers should always mention sustainability during speeches and discussions. This slowly embeds the concept of sustainability in employees’ minds and centres sustainability in the organisation’s culture.

    Leaders should set the tone of a sustainable organisation.

    Moreover, managers need to check in with their team members and ensure they are taking the necessary steps to advance the company’s sustainable strategy. In other words, clear KPIs are needed to make sure the sustainability agenda is moving forward and that everybody is playing their valuable part in fostering a culture of sustainability.

    Reticence won’t get employees on board and dedicated to sustainability. You’ve got to go for it in order to show employees that you mean business. Take on sustainability efforts, even when they seem big and scary. It’s necessary to make employees feel responsible and empowered. They need to believe that they can truly make a difference.” 

    6. Commitments and KPIs

    Improving the overall KPIs of the company unifies efforts and supports the strategic achievement of targets. Through clear KPIs, employees have a better understanding of how they can contribute with their work. This adds clear structure and purpose to their daily work. Therefore, long-term sustainability actions should be facilitated through commitments and goals that are monitored through sustainability KPIs

    Help to break down sustainable habits into achievable small milestones so that employees get an increased feeling of progress, leading to a greater motivation to continue the sustainable growth process. Employees must be provided with help on this journey so they do not feel overwhelmed by the changes. A sustainable company should create a supportive environment in which sustainability is a priority.

    Building a sustainability culture means integrating sustainability into everyday decisions, overall company purpose, and strategies, and making sustainability part of daily activities. Moreover, a sustainable organisation should encourage a culture that rewards initiatives, action, and commitments to sustainability.

    5 steps to Develop a strong culture of Sustainability

    Though most CEOs agree that sustainability is important to their company’s future, many struggle to build it into their day-to-day operations.

    The Star Model may pinpoint the key elements for changing organizational culture, but it doesn’t provide a “how-to guide” for actually embedding sustainability into your company’s strategy, structure, processes, etc. 

    To demystify the process, we’ve outlined the five key steps we take with clients to help them shape cultures capable of driving sustainable transformation.

    Step 1: Create a new vision for the future.

    Without a destination in mind, it’s impossible to pave a clear path forward. Vision provides this. But your company’s current vision won’t be able to produce the outcomes you’re after. It’s purpose-built for different aspirations. New ambitions require a new vision — so it’s back to the drawing board.   The first action item: a visioning exercise. You’ll need to gather all the right people around the table — and if you don’t know who they are, you need to find out. Perform some “organizational soul-searching” to answer these key questions:

    • Who are we as an organization? What is our purpose?
    • What is our mindset and behavior?
    • How would people describe us as a group?
    • Is this who we want to be? As an individual, is this what I want too? 
    • When we envision the company we’re working at, what do we want it to look like in 2, 5 or even 10 years? 
    • What is the narrative we’d like to have in the future? How will that change from where we are today?
    • Why do we need to change? What happens if we don’t? 
    • What are the principles of this vision? 
    • Do we have full executive support to realize this vision?

    Step 2: Get a cultural baseline.

    Determine how sustainability is currently “lived” in your organization. Conduct an assessment on the perception of the organization’s sustainability position among peers and across your industry. Get a sense of how critical sustainability is perceived to be to the success of the organization. This is particularly crucial for workers outside of sustainability functions. Do they feel they are contributing to the organization’s sustainability goals? 

    Above all else, be realistic. Beware of the gap between how the culture is officially described and how things really are. Also pay particular attention to the “deep culture” vs. the “surface culture.” The devil is in the details of “how we get things done around here.” 

    By getting a sense of your organization’s mindset, you’ll be better able to judge the potential for the buy-in, participation and advocacy you need to achieve the vision. 

    Step 3: Develop an action plan.

    Now that you’ve set the vision and performed the necessary diagnostic, it’s time to plot a realistic course taking those cultural factors into account. 

    • Who needs to participate most in the program?
    • What are the actions that need to be taken?
    • When will each activity take place?
    • How will you get there? 
    • Why is this important? 

    Build capacity and create space within the organization to focus and integrate sustainability into the roles and responsibilities of the majority, if not all, of your workforce. 

    It’s critical to be inclusive and help create opportunities for everyone in the organization to play a role in achieving its objectives. When everyone’s in on the action, it becomes a rallying point that builds enthusiasm to fuel positive outcomes. 

    Central to this enthusiasm is the why. Stay clear of the standard tropes and tell the unvarnished truth in context to the organization. For example:

    “Last year XYZ inc.’s carbon footprint was X. We need to reduce it to Y for the sake of not just the planet, but to show real progress to our customers. If we achieve this, it will build consumer trust and help our brand.”

    When everyone’s in on the action, it becomes a rallying point that builds enthusiasm to fuel positive outcomes.


    Step 4. Remove the roadblocks and build champions.

    Assess your workforce’s awareness, knowledge, and skills to determine the gaps that may serve as barriers to alignment with sustainability goals and targets. Determine your organization’s capability to operationalize and build governance.

    Summary Text: 

    This blog provides a detailed guide on addressing organizational hindrances, engaging key stakeholders, fostering positive reinforcement, and utilizing the Star Model Framework to drive sustainable transformation within organizations.