The below is an op-ed piece written by Judy Kuszewski as part of the marketing series for the new management intelligence report. To get further insight, stats and an overview of the report download the free selected findings on the right-hand side.

Embedding sustainability: How to eat the elephant

A focus on steady progress is central to properly embedding sustainability throughout a company’s functions

A typical corporate responsibility programme may begin in one of many ways. For instance, a successful pilot project. Or a high-profile commitment or target. A well regarded sustainability report may give rise to a carefully executed management initiative.

But as diverse as these examples are, what do they have in common? They can all serve as the basis for a bigger effort at embedding corporate responsibility in your company. Embedding corporate responsibility means knowing you’ve done the work to ensure everything your company does, makes and says is influenced by your goals and values. Embedding is the difference between a successful one-off project and a sustainable company.

Perhaps in a perfect world, we’d all follow a logical and methodical process for pursuing sustainability, probably beginning with identifying material issues, setting targets, developing a roadmap, and so on.

But the truth is, most companies find themselves with a mix of things that respond to different needs and pressures in different geographies or parts of the business. There is often little design evident in the company’s approach beyond the individual programmes and initiatives – which may in themselves be very well conceived but fail to leverage their success and their impact.

Impossible?

Moreover, the whole corporate responsibility and sustainability project can appear very daunting for even the best-prepared team. It can seem as though the scale of the challenge is immense, the problems beyond the ability of a single company to affect. In other words, impossible.

There’s an old saying that may be useful here: how do you eat an elephant? The answer: one bite at a time.

Any unpleasant imagery about snacking on protected species notwithstanding, it’s a useful touchstone for anyone embarking on a complex, long-term and often subtle process of changing attitudes, finding new ways to understand and measure performance, and dealing with stakeholders.

Ethical Corporation’s recent report – How to embed sustainability and corporate responsibility in management processes – provides bite-sized food for thought across the whole process of developing and embedding sustainable business across a company’s operations. It provides hundreds of examples of good practices from real companies, based on dozens of interviews with leaders.

The report looks at a range of embedding practices and a series of corporate functions, to help practitioners see how their efforts can be most effectively scaled across their company, to meet their own unique needs.

Where to start?

So which bite comes first? The simple answer to the question of where to begin the embedding process is to begin where you are.

So if your company has a particular interest in targets, Ethical Corporation’s report provides a foundation to work on target-setting and implementing across a variety of business operations.

On the other hand, if you are particularly focused on the company’s supply chain, the report shows what embedding steps you can take across the whole of that function. This allows multiple entry points for companies of all sizes and stages of familiarity, and gives you the ability to play to your strengths.

Among the many insights we gained in the research for this report, a few high-level lessons stand out.

Sustainability and corporate responsibility needs both champions and cheerleaders. While it’s essential to be able to draw on specialised expertise where available, there also needs to be a shared basic understanding and commitment across the company. If sustainability or corporate responsibility is seen as the job of the “CR department”, you’re in trouble.

Don’t close off your options too early. Often, companies face the temptation to limit the scope of their efforts in a bid to keep things simple. In those cases, you may find yourself with a set of initiatives that won’t address what you really need them to. If you must begin with a limited scope in order to gain early acceptance, you will need to keep in mind the gaps that need to be closed as you go forward.

Help others to see the bigger picture. Use of tools such as road maps can help colleagues understand where the company is going, as well as where it stands today. This is essential to maintaining motivation.

Share the wealth. Sharing stories, building skills and tapping into employees’ latent desire to make a difference in the world. Corporate responsibility can be a powerful motivator and source of enthusiasm, as well as a driver of creative success.

Job done? Think again. Complacency is a great temptation in any endeavour, where a successful roll-out may lull people into believing that the hard work is over. Risks constantly evolve, as do demands through the value chain and relationships with stakeholders.

But at the same time, sources of value and innovation are constantly emerging as well, and sustainability can help unlock this value.

Judy Kuszewski is an independent writer and consultant on sustainable business. She led the research and writing team on the recent Ethical Corporation report “How to embed sustainability and corporate responsibility in management processes”.

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