Most organizations are familiar with the concept of sustainability and the importance of embedding its practices into their culture and operations. It’s an effective way of taking accountability for your business impacts, anticipating external influences that may shape your business and connecting your brand to a core set of values.
However, the days of creating ad hoc programs in response to sustainability issues are gone. We’re now seeing organizations solidifying their approach and recognizing sustainability as a strategic business imperative.
By placing a strategic focus on sustainability within your organization, you’re creating new opportunities for change, as well as an expectation for transparency on the progress you’re making. Developing a comprehensive strategy that addresses the environmental, social and governance factors at play across your operating landscape is critical to success on both of these fronts.
To help ensure you’re meeting your objectives and driving change that sets your organization up for long-term success, consider the following elements in your sustainability program.
Identify, prioritize and engage stakeholders
Remember to check the pulse of all your stakeholder groups. Your stakeholders will include clients, shareholders, analysts, regulators, community organizations, employees as well as many others. Identifying and connecting with these groups is key to determining your sustainability impacts and the issues that are most important to your business.
Identifying and engaging with stakeholders can happen both formally and informally. Connecting with peers, experts and community members in settings that aren’t sustainability focused can help you gain insights into issues that wouldn’t otherwise come to light. Combing through client and employee comments or survey results can also turn up important trends and themes. More formal mechanisms, such as stakeholder panels, can help round out your approach and avoid blind spots.
International reporting frameworks, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, will help align reporting on your strategy with a widely recognized set of standards, helping readers compare results from different organizations. Looking to a range of respected voluntary standards can not only help to sharpen your reporting but also identify emerging trends you may want to monitor.
Remember that stakeholders are within your organization as well. Internal stakeholder engagement ensures that your sustainability strategy is core to your business strategy, strengthens ownership of goals and increases employee support. Employees have the potential to be your greatest sustainability ambassadors if they’re engaged in the process and informed of sustainability goals, targets and progress.
Monitor regulatory and policy topics
Government regulation and public policy play a large role in how your organization approaches sustainability. Social and environmental issues that are top of mind within your business are likely to be on the radar of senior policy makers as well. It’s important to connect with your public affairs team. They can keep their ears to the ground for news of upcoming government commitments and proposed legislation that may impact the way you do business and you can be in a position to influence — as well as prepare for — changes in policy and legislation.
Carbon pricing and the transition to a low-carbon economy is an example of a topic that is receiving a lot of attention from governments around the world, and if it isn’t already, has the potential to greatly impact sustainability priorities. Legislative developments in this area may prompt a new response from your organization in the form of expedited emissions reduction targets or goals, new management strategies or more rigorous reporting.
Finding ways to participate in ongoing discussions at the policy level is vital to ensuring your organization’s voice is heard. Think of different ways to engage with lawmakers, including drawing on the influence of industry associations and advocacy groups. If proposed legislation has a significant impact on your business activities, it’s best to proactively address issues while they’re being tabled.
Consider the importance of social issues
Issues of social injustice and inequality are a top priority for all stakeholders, regardless of their business goals or operating environment. As a result, organizations are expected to incorporate their stance on social matters into their sustainability commitments. Stakeholders are interested in knowing about how your business activities address societal issues, such as human rights, gender inequality and racial discrimination.
Supply chains are one area ripe with opportunity to incorporate clearer sustainability practices. Being aware of who your suppliers are and their degree of ethical conduct and compliance with applicable laws and regulatory requirements is sound risk-management practice. Consider creating a ‘supplier code of conduct’ to be used in the supplier validation process that includes a requirement for diverse suppliers to be a part of your evaluation process.
An organizational focus on diversity and inclusion is an important pathway to forging a sustainable future. Creating environments where clients, employees and community members feel respected and encouraged to be their authentic selves drives innovation and better decision-making.
Your sustainability strategy is a platform for communicating your organizational values, ideals and the standards that set you apart from others. Set ambitious, forward-thinking goals that move the needle and separate your organization from its competitors.
The success of your sustainability strategy hinges on your ability to forecast the future and cultivate a resilient organization that is capable of anticipating and meeting new demands and withstanding threats. The most effective sustainability leaders are those with a clear vision for the future and an appetite for driving transformational change.
A truly sustainable organization makes room to accommodate change and creates environments that support innovation, diversity, increased employee engagement and a client-centric focus. Progress in these areas is what will ensure your organization is here for decades to come. And, above all, it’s the right thing to do.
Melissa Kennedy is executive vice president, chief legal officer and public affairs at Sun Life Financial, where she oversees the company’s worldwide legal, compliance, corporate secretarial and public affairs functions. In recognition of her contributions to Sun Life’s sustainability program, Melissa received the 2017 environmental, social and governance award from the Canadian general counsel awards and was named Canadian general counsel of the year in 2012.