It’s time to accelerate out of the sustainability slow lane

Francesca Micallef Director of Sustainability Advisory

Slow Lane 2

13th July 2023

We see many businesses setting themselves up as sustainability champions, but too often they end up stuck in the sustainability slow lane.

Mired by a lack of resource and investment, not to mention a dearth of ambition that leads them to play it safe, they make incremental improvements focused on short-term behaviours. But what is needed to deliver on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and tackle the climate emergency is real investment in business transformation.

By simply promoting the changes they’re making while failing to acknowledge the important things they are not yet addressing, businesses are not making themselves truly accountable in creating a sustainable business.

This behaviour reflects an outdated view of risk, rooted in compartmentalising sustainability strategy as discrete from business strategy, rather than an integral part of it. CEOs, the fulcrum of progress on sustainability, lack a clear route map and the necessary skillsets.

This is understandable, given the enormity of the operational and mindset changes required. Good intentions cannot bankroll the vast resources and complex restructuring needed for businesses to help build a sustainable future, including driving progress through their value chains. To achieve this, they need to alter the perception of sustainability as a cost to sustainability as an investment. Making difficult changes now will result in long-term benefits – not making them may mean disaster.

Orchestrating these shifts shouldn’t be delegated to a sustainability team – the scale of the challenge and the depth of the transformation required is beyond the remit of a single department. Siloing off the sustainability function will prevent them from achieving their purpose, by stopping them from mobilising the rest of the business to create the momentum needed to catalyse change.

Businesses succeeding in this space are those with centralised sustainability models, and those changing governance structures to incorporate business transformation officers who oversee holistic sustainability policies. But restructuring only works alongside a fundamental shift in risk perception. The real risk to business and the planet is the pursuit of sustainability perfection over progress and the fear of trial and error in getting started.

With that in mind, consider our top tips for accelerating out of the sustainability slow lane:

1. Be bold and ambitious:

Lack of experience, lack of data, or limited understanding of the issues all cause hesitancy and result in unambitious targets. But sustainability requires bold action. It takes planning, investment, and giving teams the remit and autonomy to get the job done. Plan for disruptive innovation – without it, there can be no true transformation.

It doesn’t all have to happen at once: build your strategy on short-term, realistic targets that bridge the gap to longer-term, ambitious commitments. Initiating action on sustainability builds reputation and trust with stakeholders. Running strategic pilot projects to find out what works can inspire employees and supply chain partners, appease customers and NGOs, and signal to investors that you are seeking workable solutions. As data is collected, your strategy and goals can evolve. It’s not greenwashing to state an ambitious target if you’re honest about the steps and current gaps needed to get there.

2. Align rather than bolting-on:

Too often, companies treat sustainability as an afterthought, and build a strategy that runs in parallel to their day-to-day business operations. This puts sustainability at risk of being axed when times get tough. Better to align your sustainability and corporate goals to a common purpose, making the former a key driver of growth.

Consider why your company is in business – and why it should still be in business in 10 years. If you deliver on your sustainability commitments, will you have furthered your business strategy? And would the reverse be true? By authentically connecting sustainability to your corporate mission, it will create value to the business.

3. Strong leadership is vital:

Leadership from the top is needed for sustainability to be recognised and enacted as a strategic priority within the organisation. CEO endorsement is widely acknowledged as the key to a successful sustainability strategy, but it’s only half of the story. Equally important is how the CEO shows their commitment and leadership on these issues.

Authenticity and communication are the building blocks. The CEO needs to employ a tone of urgency around sustainability, have belief in the action being taken, and trust in the outcomes. Without these foundations, there will be limited business transformation, and sustainable growth, reputation and innovation will be stymied.

4. Embrace trial and error:

It’s okay to fail if you’re demonstrating that you’re moving in the right direction. There’s increasing pressure from all stakeholders to not only showcase successes but also report on what isn’t working. Being honest about the factors holding up the process as well as where you’re making progress is crucial to the organisation’s credibility around sustainability.

Demonstrating a policy of trial and error has the benefits of creating a dialogue in your industry; garnering support from outspoken stakeholders including campaign groups and NGOs; and boosting corporate reputation.

5. Bring the business with you:

To bring your strategy to life and sustain a momentum that employees can get behind, consider how to embed sustainability throughout the business, reshaping intangibles such as values and ways of working. It won’t happen overnight, but sustainability should eventually be regarded as the way of doing things rather than something you have to do.

Ensure the right people are responsible and accountable for the right goals, and they’re incentivised to enable transformation. Beyond this, make every employee a sustainability champion. It’s not enough to only have sustainability evangelists at the top – they must be nurtured at all levels of the organisation.

6. Utilise creativity to inspire change:

Creativity in the service of sustainability is a largely untapped resource – one that can educate and engage audiences to accelerate progress. Creativity is needed to allow sustainability to live in the real world. It is the antidote to ‘greywashing’ – dry sustainability strategies that lack the creativity to activate them, or an inspirational rallying cry to drive behaviour change.

Embed your brand purpose, vision and culture into your sustainability strategy from the start, and identify your unique contribution to creating societal and environmental change. Remember that creativity must be matched with credibility: reject one-off wins in favour of strategies that align with your business purpose. 

7. Ask for advice:

While each company’s sustainability journey is unique, don’t underestimate how much can be learnt from the experience of others. There are years of accumulated knowledge in your business and your networks waiting to be tapped.

Collaboration can have a powerful impact, and by working together, we can tap into its power and drive progress forward. For businesses still lingering in the slow lane, this support and insight can help fast-track you into a sustainable future.

Sustainability issues are evolving at speed, and you need to catch up and keep up. Even for sustainability laggards, it’s not too late to accelerate positive progress. By being bold with your strategy rather than hanging back or doing the bare minimum, you can reap the competitive advantages of being in the running to get to net-zero.

Bravery and ambition will allow you to avoid the risks and meet the opportunities – financial, reputational and operational – that an authentic, embedded sustainability strategy can bring.

The climate crisis can’t wait, so let’s get moving.