“Sustainability” - Why’s, What’s and How’s.


The motivation to implement a sustainability strategy could be anything ranging from 

1) peer pressure , 2) compliance pressure, 3) genuine interest to saving money, 4) genuine interest to conserving environment, 5) strategy to gain a strategic customer.

Although all the stated reasons seem legitimate,  in the process of implementing:

1) Peer pressure is reduced to copying; companies look at the competition and just follow the same approach. 2) Compliance pressures are genuine markers and align operations to the regions need, When self regulation and responsibility is expected from companies in actuality companies wait and watch if the implementation agencies are serious. If they see a lack of resolve in the implementation agencies by not receiving a reprimand or a notice of fine they rather sit on the fence, and it is impossible for governments in this economy where industries mushroom everywhere to monitor compliance. 3) Genuine interest to saving money; this cultural habit is fast escaping the present paradigm of growth as in many cases growth is not fuelled by revenues but by perception and ill-advised financial institutions. 4) Genuine interest to conserving environment; Every individual feels responsibility for the environment but when they are part of a system this concern is alwaysoutweighed by the need to grow. There is a perception that share holders and investors do not appreciate companies placing environmental conservation before revenue growth which may not be true. 5) Strategy to gain a strategic customer that one always wanted to service; Although this is proven to be the case time and again somehow there is disbelief and denial and also the irrational consideration that acknowledgment will inform the competition and sustainability will cease to be an advantage. 

Extending “Why’s” to “What’s”

In the present environment no matter what the reason is the output is always reduced to 2 major reasons. 1) to report and 2) gain resource efficiency. The 3rd reason broadcasting operational achievement to stakeholders is not understood or ignored. 

A brief and common sense look at reporting will lead to a simple conclusion and that is there are many reporting formats, some are global like the GRI, CDP etc and the other are regional ones that are to do it local pollution control boards to some country specific declaration initiatives that may or may not link the financial regimes like the indices, stock markets and the reserve banks. The common trait in all these reporting or declaration formats is that they change very often. The data that needs to be declared keeps increasing in scope and as it increases and as logic has it the format alters. Often this soft aspect gets the most attention as organisation KPI’s are attached to these outputs. for ex: “Oh shit! GRI changes its format once again and this time they have included materiality”

If one considers the present state of software technology this is simplest of all aspects to achieve especially and only since the underlying data that is needed for all these various formats can be reduced to energy, water, waste, transportation and pollution in relation to output and income. Soon carbon pricing at source and risk estimation/ declaration will be additions. The required depth varies from carbon foot-printing to Life cycle analysis. 

Logical conclusion to this “Reporting” part is to build a process where data capture can happen consistently and to achieve this a single line to the accounts is sufficient. 

If the conclusion is so obvious why are most of the sustainability implementations a failure. The reasons are 1) Ignorance or lack of experience in the part of the decision maker 2) Too much importance on the process and to this concept “Management” 3) Mistaking between democratic process, freedom and the output.

This first (Ignorance) reason is not meant to single out a person and a roll but a situation. Since the “Why” is not answered with clarity its implementation is also fuzzy resulting in delayed decision making. Delayed decision making will result in frequent change of guard and so twisting the already stunted mandate. These events gradually wash away confidence of the service provider which results in underperformance of the project. The second reason (Process) is far more systemic than the first. In most companies the word process entails a false sense of correctness when in actually it is lack of initiative, It is a well known fact that when an organisation grows both in size and age it tends to accumulate burdensome process like fat accumulating on a couch potato. Correcting this is a tedious and long process with very little chance of comprehensive success unless the leadership is subjected to disruptive change. Considering the above argument perhaps it is appropriate to create a separate process to short-circuit decision making. In some occasions this is understood and acted upon but unfortunately the leadership takes its eye of the mandate and that encourages slack which in turn subjects sustainability to the “Process”and so its eventual failure. The third reason (Mistaking) is a rather sublime one when compared to the previous 2. Here the most frequent error is that failure of a project is pinned on democratic process which means convenient distribution of blame across the board. 

How? - Overcoming the challenges

Clutter free thinking and single pointed focus will be needed to cut through the various challenges explained earlier. 

The way to overcome is to make a few changes to the process and they are:

1) to make the exercise output and outcome based;  2) to create a process where the man/ woman on top has a uninterrupted view 3) distribute the expense of the implementation across the functional areas 4) create a short-circuited process and build within it a signalling mechanism for slack 5) Find a lead that is decisive and most likely to spend time on the mandate and who has a direct line to the top man/ woman 6) Build a core team with representation from the external as well preventing sycophancy and inviting frequent “No” as a response. 


Extending How?

How do you make various functional heads responsible?

Involving the functional heads is inevitable and without which sustainability will definitely fail. A change in fundamental assumption needs to be made in order to address the above challenge and that is since all the functional teams within an organisation benefit from sustainability practice all must appropriately contribute to it. The marketing function may choose to add value to the brand, The operational function may choose to increase efficiency and save money and receive accolades, The finance function may choose to view it from increasing the bottom-line, The sales function may choose to partner with the marketing function and bring about increase sales, The corporate function may choose to feel secure that their compliance mandate is on track and tom-tom it, The share holders may choose to feel secure from all the above.

Recruiting the functional teams is made easy by highlighting personal benefit to them. Taking the functional teams to distant places and explaining to them the nature of the challenge will only lead to a unresolved debate and a false sense of democracy. Why this tedious process and waste of money when simply showing the window of opportunity will convince them.

This opportunity based approach is never tried as it is thought of as undemocratic. Ask yourselves, are any other opportunities subject to the same democratic process? 

Additional and obvious advantage of this kind of approach is that the functional heads will demand output and that will automatically make way for a output based roadmap.

How do you create a process that is always in view to the top man/woman?

As said earlier sustainability mandate always starts off at the top and gets fuzzy during its implementation. To overcome this the man/ woman on top must demand just 1 kind of output which is a visualised outcome converted from the various outputs. These visualisations must be broadcast/ social media friendly and strategically periodic so that they assume a communication function general and specific to all the key stakeholders, i-e customers, suppliers, employees, share holders/ investors and the wider public. 

How do you increase the chances of success? 

In addition to the above find a resource with common sense and     experienced within the organisation to head sustainability. To have some one that enjoys the confidence of the top man/ woman and someone that is not bound by process but by passion to perform. The head must be unafraid of disruptive ideas and must necessarily have flair to predict future events and friendly to software technology.  Build a panel with some representation from the external world so that recent and urgent views can be heard and considered.