The term “sustainability” often gets swept aside as an abstract, jargon-laden concept. This dismissal is a huge loss for companies today, as many could benefit from the work behind the word. In its most basic sense, sustainability is a set of values that positively affects the way a business operates every day, both within the company and in the community at-large.
Sustainability in business, specifically, has seen many changes in the past few decades. What started as a mission to create long-term financial value has grown to include internal changes such as making an office more environmentally friendly and its employees happier. No longer restricted to four walls, performance indicators have also expanded to community development, the creation of long-lasting social change, and greater collaboration with environmental groups, competitors, and suppliers.
Sustainability has a lot to do with transparency, not only in the public reporting of finances, but also in how the company manages environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) practices. For instance, regulatory bodies across Europe and Asia are beginning to require more ESG transparency from the businesses they oversee.
Regulatory requirements aside, sustainable business also means money in the bank. Today, investors’ decisions are more likely than ever to be swayed by those companies that value the tenets of sustainable business. As reported in Eco-Business, between 2012 and 2014, money managers became 3.4 times more likely to select a business that factored ESG principles into its corporate direction.
Investors’ desire for data has led to the rise in voluntary initiatives such as the Global Reporting Initiative in which businesses can track their ESG commitments, and GRESB, an organization that has created a number of surveys in which real estate companies can be transparent about their equity, debt, infrastructure, and more. Reporting helps quantify environmental and social impact. The data gathered can then be used to help your business move from a state of understanding to one of action and change.
Though mandatory sustainability reporting standards have yet to be put in place in the United States, businesses should be aware of the inevitable shift towards holistic transparency.
Four Steps Towards Corporate Sustainability
So how do organizations get started? Building a sustainable business is not a one-step process. Nor does it happen organically, without effort. Here are four ways your business can transform into one that doesn’t just talk the sustainable talk but walks the walk, too.
Designate a Goal
While the goal of “make our business 100 percent sustainable” may seem like a logical place to start, that statement is vague. Nothing interferes with accomplishing a goal like not having a road map.
Having a specific set of goals will help your company move towards sustainability faster and more efficiently.
Goals will vary based on the industry; however, there are a few business- model innovations that most companies can reasonably adopt.
These innovations include transitioning your business from physical to virtual operations, researching innovative product financing such as leases, and finding and supporting local producers to supply your business. SustainAbility created an infographic of 20 of these business models after taking a deeper look at social entrepreneurship and innovation.
Assign a Person (Or People)
Every company needs a sustainability cheerleader. While this should, in theory, be the entire team, advocating for sustainable business practices can start with a single person. A sustainability team lead or Corporate Social Responsibility staff member will be the person who takes your goals and communicates them with the rest of the staff and community.
Once you’ve designated a goal, make sure it’s embedded in your corporate culture. As the head of a sustainability department, an effective leader should be able to advocate for the role of sustainability to everyone from the entry-level workers to the CEO.
Just as with any company goal, increasing your company’s sustainability will require both time and money.
While you may have a single person working towards completing sustainability surveys by a certain deadline, it isn’t this person’s sole responsibility to ensure this process goes smoothly. Reporting requires a lot of information, and much of it will need to be obtained from members of your team, especially project and property managers.
Ensure the right people are told they may be contacted by your sustainability team. Then, make sure they have the time and capacity to step aside from their daily work to take part in your company’s new pledge to sustainability.
Look Out for Improvements
Once you’ve mastered sustainable practices within your own team, consider other places sustainability can factor in.
Businesses rarely operate in a vacuum and are constantly interacting with others in their vertical and horizontal networks. This is where your next opportunity may lie. Suppliers make up a big part of any company’s sustainability footprint. Make sure part of your resource planning includes keeping a pulse on your supply chain and working with partners to achieve more sustainable procurement.
Businesses can see significant benefits, both economically and socially, from incorporating sustainable practices. When selling your team on the tenets of corporate sustainability, remember that even if steps seem small at first, those efforts can build to produce tremendous results.
Matt Ellis is Founder and CEO of Measurabl, a software company that makes it possible for any company to collect, report, and act upon sustainability data, powering the global market in non-financial information. Before Measurabl, Matt spent five years with CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services company, where he began his career as a real estate broker. Matt went on to lead CBRE’s Sustainability Practice Group in the Western US, implement its industry-first global carbon neutrality program, and serve as the company’s first Director of Sustainability Solutions and youngest member of its Global Sustainability Steering Committee. Matt has expertise in sustainability reporting, corporate sustainability strategy, institutional and corporate real estate, carbon accounting, and green building. He is an Aspen Institute First Movers Fellow and New Leaders Council Fellow.