Posts Tagged ‘ Sustainability ’

Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended: Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer

As much as I try to telework to minimize our firm’s environmental footprint, there are times when I just have to travel to meet client needs.  So I fly.  A lot.  I can, like most frequent flyers, recite the safety briefing from memory.  On a recent trip, it occurred to me there are gems of wisdom in that briefing that we can apply to the world of corporate responsibility, if we look at them creatively. 

Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended” – You often hear this announcement in the holding room, before boarding.

iStock_000015455200_SmallMost companies, like most travelers, have baggage.  When it comes to corporate sustainability and responsibility, the kind of baggage you need to worry about is the kind that comes most frequently with extremes of organizational change, ranging from the slow, organic growth of companies that span decades or even centuries, to rapid growth through new market creation and mergers and acquisitions.  These extremes of development can lead to entrenched systems, legacy issues, and persistent misperceptions that hinder forward progress.

For example, a fast-growing small or medium-sized enterprise might be weighed down by internal financial and human resource management systems that it has outgrown.  A company newly formed out of a merger or acquisition might carry a burden of outstanding environmental liability associated with past operations.  An organization that has been in operation for decades may be encumbered by practices that have become habitual instead of adaptive and responsive to evolving needs and opportunities.

Organizational baggage like this, when left unattended, undermines morale, stifles innovation, erodes productivity and value, and creates long-term liability.  When in direct conflict with stated corporate values and policy, unattended baggage can call into question the credibility of the organization, and thus impact reputation.  In turn, it can be more difficult to attract talent and investment and earn social and regulatory licence.

Sustainability is often described as a journey.  If your organization is planning, undertaking, or has just come through a major growth phase, whether organic or through a merger or acquisition, or if it’s been a long time since the organization has done any serious introspection, it’s time to take a good look at what you’re carrying with you.

Here are some questions to consider, depending on your situation; this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it will help guide the initial conversation.

  • Are our current management systems still appropriate given the growth we have experienced?
  • Are we spending more time managing administrative and data management tasks than we used to?  Do we still have enough time for strategic activities?
  • Are our current management systems giving us the information we need to manage risks and leverage opportunities?
  • Are our current management systems giving us the information we need to communicate effectively to our key stakeholders?
  • What are the environmental, social, or other liabilities that we have inherited through our mergers and acquisitions?  Have we updated our corporate responsibility strategy to address these liabilities?
  • Have we evaluated these liabilities against our risk management criteria and adjusted our priorities accordingly?
  • Do we have a plan to make sure our corporate sustainability performance measures and targets take into account the full range of our newly acquired business activities?
  • Are our communication strategy and crisis communication measures adequate to respond to stakeholder enquiries about legacy liabilities?
  • Are we taking full advantage of the new strengths we acquired in our merger or acquisition?
  • Do we have new stakeholders that we didn’t have before as a result of our growth?  How have we integrated the needs and expectations of these new stakeholders into our corporate responsibility strategy?
  • Are we aware of how the needs of our key stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors, and others, have changed over time, and have we updated our practices to meet those needs?
  • Do our existing practices stifle or encourage innovation?
  • Do we have barriers to adopting new and emerging technologies?

Exploring these and other probing questions will help to unpack the systemic and legacy issues that arise out of extreme organizational development, and ensure you are well prepared for the ongoing sustainability journey.

There are benefits to traveling light: mobility, agility, flexibility, security, economy, efficiency.  These benefits can accrue to organizations that are mindful about their baggage.

 

Next time, I’ll share some wisdom from the onboard briefing…

Sustainability? Ask Why.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of cultural integration and the need for a shared vision to guide the sustainability agenda, particularly through times of leadership change.  That made me reflect on how we get to that shared vision: we start with ‘why‘.

 

In my view, “why?” is one of the most critical questions any organization must ask itself before embarking on a sustainability journey.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and he was telling me his company had established a new sustainability committee.  When I probed a bit, he explained that the CEO had declared his desire for the company to issue a sustainability report, and the committee was struck to guide that task.  The committee, however, was struggling.

As we talked, it soon became clear there had been no internal discussion about why the company was suddenly pursuing a sustainability report, and no clear understanding about what the sustainability report was supposed to achieve.  No wonder the committee was unsure of its direction!  This is not the first time I’ve encountered a company that has kicked off a sustainability initiative with a vaguely defined outcome, and I know, if there’s no intervention, where it’s probably going: to fail.

Taking action without a fulsome consideration of the driving reasons behind the sustainability agenda can lead to serious difficulties in implementation, as well as frustration arising from unmet expectations both within and outside of the organization.

Let’s go back to the example of my friend’s company.  As we talked some more, we explored the possible reasons why the CEO might have wanted a sustainability report.  Was it because the company’s investors were asking for one?  Then the company would need to show how its sustainability attributes are contributing to the bottom line, and how it is managing environmental and other material non-financial risks.  Was it because competitors were already producing one?  In that case, the company would need to figure out how it compares and what differentiates it from others in the sector.  Or was it because reporting might help the company to track and improve performance?  Perhaps sustainability reporting isn’t the first step then.  Maybe the company should establish some internal data management systems first, set some performance objectives, and start collecting data on key aspects, and then tackle reporting next year.

As illustrated by this example, asking “why?” can uncover a range of reasons, each of which may demand a different strategy and different action to achieve the desired outcome.  In some cases, those strategies may be complementary, but in others, taking action that might be responsive to one sustainability driver may conflict with achieving the objectives of another.  Thus, if the driving reasons behind a sustainability initiative are not clearly understood at the outset, there’s a good chance the selected strategy won’t achieve the desired outcome.

Careful deliberation of why an organization is contemplating action on sustainability helps to develop and articulate a shared vision that will not only guide that action over time, but also help the organization to identify, scope, and coordinate the programs necessary to support that vision.

Is your organization beginning a sustainability initiative?  Ask why.

The Continuity of Sustainability

The Network for Business Sustainability recently articulated their “Top 10” sustainability challenges for Canadian business in 2013.  I think many readers will probably agree these challenges face businesses around the globe as well.

One challenge in particular caught my attention, in light of some of the challenges I‘ve encountered myself, working with public and private sector companies in Canada and internationally:  How can companies keep their long-term sustainability agenda on track despite leadership changes?

I have witnessed several examples of disrupted sustainability agendas, even among organizations that had done a phenomenal amount of work to advance sustainability.  In my experience, it is typically the departure of a committed CEO or Board chair that leads to gradual erosion and sidelining – sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent – of corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives over time, often accompanied by a sense of frustration among team members and stakeholders.

In my view, this challenge highlights the critical need to differentiate between operational and cultural integration of sustainability. Most discussion papers and guidance pertaining to sustainability integration deal mainly with the integration of sustainability into business processes:  this is operational integration.  However, operational integration must not be mistaken for cultural integration.  Cultural integration involves the integration of sustainability into corporate vision and values, and the embodiment of those values in the behaviour of individuals within the organization. Both are critical success factors to advance a sustainability agenda over the long term, and indeed they are complementary.

Can you have cultural integration without operational integration?  Sure, but there’s a good chance the sustainability agenda will not be fully realized.  We’ve probably all seen examples of organizations populated by well-meaning individuals who share a belief in the need to be more sustainable, but whose efforts are stymied by the lack of effective integration of sustainability considerations into routine business processes.

Conversely, you can have operational integration without cultural integration, although this is usually more difficult to recognize.  In this situation too, the sustainability agenda is unlikely to be fully achieved.  Operational integration without cultural integration can happen when an organization reactively pursues a sustainability agenda – perhaps in response to stakeholder pressure or a perceived reputational risk – without taking the time to understand why, and to develop a clear, thoughtful, and shared vision.  A committed leader may also achieve a degree of operational integration through sheer strength of character, but may overlook the importance of ensuring their executive colleagues and the Board, not to mention the employees at large, share their vision.

It is where cultural integration is lagging that the sustainability agenda is most at risk of become derailed during and after a change in leadership.

Organizational vision and values are fundamentals that will guide an organization through times of change.  It is therefore worth taking the time to carefully consider the reasons for pursuing sustainability and crafting a sustainability agenda that is aligned with and supportive of the organization’s vision and values.  An organization that values sustainability leadership as part of its culture, and considers sustainability to be a core part of its strategic vision is more likely to enjoy continuity in its sustainability agenda, even through a change in leadership.

One way to enhance cultural integration is to have broad engagement with the Board, the executive/management team, and employees during development of the long-term sustainability agenda, particularly with respect to ensuring alignment of the sustainability agenda with the organization’s vision.  This increases not only understanding and buy-in across the organization, but improves operational integration as well.

The greater the degree of cultural integration, particularly among the Board and executive, the more likely it will be that commitment to sustainability will be a factor in the consideration of new leadership candidates.  This, too, will do much to assure the continuity of sustainability in the midst of change.

 

What do you think?  I invite you to share your experiences and ideas here, by clicking on the Write Comment tab, or join the discussion in the Canadian CSR and SD Practitioners Network on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Check out the Network for Business Sustainability here: http://nbs.net

Read about the Top 10 Challenges for Canadian Business in 2013 here: http://nbs.net/knowledge/top-10-sustainability-challenges-for-canadian-business-in-2013/ 

Follow the Network for Business Sustainability on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NBSnet

Canada’s Sustainability Heroes: the Clean 50

Earlier this month, Delta Management announced the inaugural Clean 50, a group of committed individuals who have made significant contributions to sustainability or “clean capitalism” in Canada in recent years.  These 50, either individually or, often, as leaders of a team, have been unrelenting advocates for sustainability in their organizations, their sectors, and their communities, collectively elevating the level of dialogue in Canada around environmental and social performance and innovation.  This group of talented and inspiring leaders epitomizes the drive and dedication that characterizes the sustainability field in Canada today.  And so it was with enthusiasm and excitement that I took part in the Clean 50 Summit held this week in Toronto. Read more about moving from ideas to action

The Red Flag over Playmobil’s Castle

My daughter loves Playmobil.  She spends hours constructing and then animating complex scenes and she’s a master at combining parts from different sets to create new structures that aren’t in the well-thumbed Playmobil catalogue.  Except for the unpleasantness of stepping on a rogue piece in the dark or sifting through the dust of the vacuum cleaner bag to recover some special plastic bit, I quite like the stuff myself.  It’s the sort of toy I wish I had when I was a kid.

However, I must admit I’m disappointed by the company’s apparent inattention to sustainability.

A set my daughter bought was missing a piece – a rare occurrence – so I ordered a replacement part through the company’s website.   Here’s what I received in the mail a couple of weeks later:

The piece

The packaging

The piece itself is about 3 x 2 x 2 cm!  You could fit  hundreds of them in that box!  (At least the box was not also filled with those hard-to-recycle (and annoyingly clingy) styrofoam chips.)

This experience prompted me to go to Playmobil’s website to find out where they stand on sustainable packaging.  Much to my chagrin, I was unable to find any information about any aspect of sustainability at Playmobil and its maker, Geobra Brandstätter gmbH.

I went out to the shed to check the original packaging; a few boxes have Der Grüne Punkt, indicating the company participates in the Green Dot program in Germany, but there is no other mark to indicate recycled content or recyclability of the packaging.

There are so many resources out there now to support manufacturers in adopting sustainable packaging materials and systems, there really is no excuse for a consumer products manufacturer to ignore this aspect of corporate responsibility.  For example, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is an industry working group that offers courses, briefs, design guidelines and other resources for sustainable packaging.  The Sustainable Packaging Alliance provides tools and delivers workshops and events.  Or check out the annual Sustainable Packaging Forum, coming up in September in Texas.

Sustainable packaging minimizes material waste, both in manufacturing and end-of-use disposal.  It also reduces energy and emissions associated with transportation from factory to distribution centre to retail store.  And, of course, it saves money in material costs, transportation, and warehousing.

Playmobil red flagAny way you look at it, the clearly unsustainable packaging used to send me this replacement part is a red flag.  It shows that Playmobil either isn’t doing anything about sustainable packaging or, if it is, the company has overlooked certain customer transactions that involve packaging.

That there is no publicly available information about Playmobil’s corporate responsibility programs, too, is a red flag.  Does it mean that Playmobil and Geobra are doing nothing about sustainability?  Or does it mean, simply, they aren’t communicating what they’re doing?  Either way, it’s leaving me and every other interested consumer in the dark.  And that’s no way to build confidence and trust.

Click here to access Playmobil’s Facts and Figures page (over 2 billion figures manufactured to date!)

Image of Playmobil part from this eBay listing.

What Makes a Sustainability Leader?

Ray Anderson

Many of us in the corporate responsibility and sustainability community were saddened this week by the death of Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface.  If you don’t already know his story, Ray is perhaps best known for his compelling description of the ‘spear in the chest’ epiphany that shifted his environmental paradigm from old-school compliance to sustainability evangelism.  The many tributes paid this week invariably described Ray as a sustainability leader.

That got me to thinking about what attributes epitomize a “sustainability leader.”

In his own words, Ray provided a “shared higher purpose” to his team at Interface.  He articulated a clear vision, supported by a persuasive rationale.  He communicated a sense of urgency, while describing a clear path of action.  He was consistent in his messaging, and tireless in its delivery, both within Interface and with external audiences.  Ray was willing to take risks, to step out ahead of the crowd, fueled by conviction and determination.  He was sincere, and he was deeply committed.

Consequently, Ray Anderson transformed his company into an industry leader in sustainability, while also inspiring thousands of business people, corporate responsibility practitioners, and ordinary folk through storytelling.

Ray showed us that sustainability leaders don’t have all the answers.  They lead from where they are.  They embrace and enable followers and collaborators, anyone who can help to achieve the sustainability vision.  They are courageous and willing to stand alone.  They find their own voice and leverage their own strengths to distill the complexities of sustainability into a simple, clear vision of the way things are, the way things need to be, and the path between these realities.  They move inexorably forward in the sustainability journey, though it may be a daunting one.  They act.

 

View Ray Anderson’s TED talk here.

Photo of Ray from Interface Global’s website.  Ray’s words, above, quoted from John Elkington’s tribute to Ray Anderson in the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, here.  

Read additional tributes to Ray Anderson here, here, and here.

View Interface’s memorial page and blog here.

Cultivating a Community of Practice

Two years ago today, I launched the Canadian CSR and SD Practitioners Network on LinkedIn.

At the time, I saw a need for a network to connect individual corporate responsibility and sustainability practitioners in Canada.  There were already several Canadian (and, of course, international) organizations bringing together businesses and corporations around these issues, but, for the most part, these were or are not accessible to the individual practitioner, unless their employer is a member.  I especially welcomed the opportunity to create and participate in a community that meets my own needs and interests, living as I do in a small town quite outside the traditional corporate meet-and-greet circle.

I wanted to create a space where individual practitioners could share information, engage in dialogue with peers, and network with others in their sector, their region, and their area of expertise.  My goal was and remains to help increase the uptake of corporate responsibility and sustainable practices in business across Canada (and, where Canadian practitioners are active internationally, beyond).

If the growth in the Network is any indication, we are collectively realizing this goal.   Click here to read about the growth and impact of the Network

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