How to Make Sure Your Sustainability Programs Create Value

Sustainability programs, if carried out correctly, can be powerful agents of change and innovation.

That said, a lot of company-driven sustainability programs look great on paper but don’t fly in real life.  Many are generic and tend to be for show rather than impact. They don’t consider a company’s strong points, only catering to popular notions of sustainability to be seen. Surface-level tactics have grown threadbare and can even develop a sense of boredom and resistance in company teams because they’re monotonous. 

On the other hand, some companies have created plans that not only involve their products and processes but transforms them to be better and more profitable. Unilever, for example, has a Sustainable Living Plan that exhaustively details their goals for the coming years, including one to cut their products’ greenhouse gas impact by half. IKEA’s 2030 vision is to become climate positive by using sustainable materials, serving plant-based foods, adopting renewable energy, and more. 

So how would you take your company from table-stakes recycling drives to a sustainability program that generates value?

Performance management for sustainability programs

Performance management helps to make sure that an organization’s activities and results are helping them reach their goals efficiently. It has many use cases, and sustainability programs can be one of them. Here’s how:

Narrow your focus

Sustainability comes in many shapes and forms, and first-time program planners make the serious mistake of focusing on 10 different areas at once. Not only is this a waste of time and resources, but it also doesn’t generate the results you can expect. Your choice of a focus area (or three) should be connected to your industry impact, achievable with your resources, and tackle what matters most. 

You can start by asking the following questions:

  • What areas are a good fit for my corporate strategy?
  • When I look at my entire value chain, what matters most?
  • How do I ensure that this is the right path? 
  • How do I give my employees equal stakes and power in seeing this program through?
  • What returns do I want to see, and will the path we’re looking at achieve that?

Outline goals that can be measured

Measuring goals is the only way to see if they’ve worked — but that won’t be possible if the goals you set are intangible, abstract, or immeasurable. You can say, for example, that the company’s goal is to reduce the impact of products on the environment. The questions that arise and leave room for mismanagement are: what products? What impact? How much do we want to reduce the impact? By when do we need to?

While quantifiable goals can look like “This company should recycle 5,000 disposable coffee cups in a month”, you will need to have a longer-term focus than that. Long-term goals not only give you the wriggle room to create strategies that work, but they also promote a culture of accountability and create space for short-term achievements that work towards the finish line. 

Make the business case with cost-benefit analyses

Given that sustainability programs are often looked at as a forced-to-do rather than a need-to-do, not many companies conduct a thorough financial analysis beforehand. The financial impact can come in many forms and from surprising angles. Therefore, it’s crucial to have eyes on all possible targets and continuously weigh the costs against each target’s benefits. 

There are two kinds of benefits: the ones that pay off immediately and those that rack up quite the impact in the long term. The first kind is often the ones companies settle for — reduced plastic consumption, for example, or lower electricity bills. While these are good things, the true financial impact comes from the second type, but they’re also the ones that need the most focus and determination over time. This data shouldn’t be kept under wraps but instead shared with employees and stakeholders to drive motivation and increase loyalty. 

Reward those who put in the work 

Sustainability programs are an all-hands-on-deck sort of affair. This means that motivation and appreciation must be constantly given to those who actively make the program work. Depending on the industry you occupy, these could be employees, suppliers, factory workers, partner organizations, or even packaging teams. 

Incentivizing actions help these stakeholders contribute by nurturing a sense of responsibility that comes from the inside. They can look like monetary perks, shares, planting trees in the name of each stakeholder… whatever suits your business model. But the fact of the matter is that they create high standards for supply chains, ensuring that weak links are removed, and the program is adhered to from start to finish. Finally, the cooperation of all stakeholders will be the key to the organization drawing out the full value of the program. 

Play the long game, not the short con

Sustainability philosophies will look different for every organization. But that doesn’t change the fact that choosing to drive towards it can open doors to innovation and value that other initiatives can’t match. After all, positive environmental action must take into account that the Earth’s resources are limited. We’d simply be playing for time with smaller actions when there are larger changes that need to be made, and made now.