Sustainability Is about Long-Term Thinking, Planning & Profitability, Part II
A giant challenge facing us all is how to convince the C-Suite that sustainability is about profitability and not just about PR. The problem is long standing and not easy to overcome. Like a long dysfunctional relationship, this problem faces deep-rooted baggage that seems impossible to leave behind, and, in this case, therapy may not be very helpful.
In the spirit of the summer holidays coming to a close – when you have a lot of other reading to catch up on – here are some quick-and-easy tips to give you a practical and tactical boost as you get back into the regular routine of work and face all the same obstacles that were there before everyone went on their vacation.
Top 5 Tips for Sustainability Champions To Convince the C-Suite
1. Put sustainability into a context that’s relevant to your business and brand.
Case studies are usually the best way to find a relevant example to present to the C-Suite, but you might not find a case study that is representative enough of your business model or market. Look for case studies that emphasize action plans and routes to profitability over one-off success stories. Define what sustainability means for you and your team. Tell the story from your company’s perspective highlighting how Brand X can reap the same benefits. In other words, make sure that you use your company’s internal language to make your case, not just cut-and-paste language from an anecdote or case study.
2. Clarify that true sustainability means cost savings, waste reduction, and increased profitability over the long term.
Sustainability means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Make sure you focus on the business case and always discuss business-relevant facts. Sustainability in a business context should always emphasize things like cost-savings and waste reduction. It should be discussed in the language of the top priorities of your business today. The relevancy of sustainability can be linked to individual KPIs, departmental goals, revenue targets, and a lot more. Discussing sustainability in these contexts, and in the language that the C-Suite can relate to, serves to make it strategically relevant to the business as a whole.
3. De-emphasize CSR, i.e. photos of smiling children, charitable contributions, and community-based programs.
CSR and sustainability are often confused in the C-Suite. CSR is more often than not based on charitable or community-based programs that are an outgoing cost to the company, where the ROI is measured in goodwill, good PR and corporate or brand image, and hopefully customer and employee loyalty.. Sustainability, in the food sector, is about the long term health of the business in terms of the reliability and affordability of commodity materials (such as corn or oil), the efficiency of operational practices to minimize material waste throughout the manufacturing process and supply chain, and the knowledge to understand the best ways to implement these cost-saving programs. Emphasizing CSR reporting will serve only to marginalize the discussion around sustainability and keep it on the edges of the business, rather than integrated within day-to-day operations.
4. Use the fear factors that resonate best with your business and brand.
Every business has key fears that influence decisions. Every executive has a touch point. Whether it is skyrocketing (or dropping) oil prices, new environmental regulation, losing ground against competitors, high rates of employee turnover, changing tastes of the market, or any other number of risk factors that can affect the bottom line. There are lots of different areas that sustainability can touch on, and a crucial step in the convincing process is to find the fears that are most prominent in the short-term, and use sustainability arguments to offer long-term solutions. For insecure commodity supply lines, using sustainability thinking to redefine the supplier-client relationship is effective and often cost-saving. For high waste or inefficient operations, a lifecycle approach points out specific improvements that are generally hard to see without the longer term perspective. By focusing on the fears, the direction of sustainability action plans is often clearer.
5. Take baby step approaches to improve internal understanding about the benefits of sustainability.
The final tip is one that I repeat over and over again. Sustainability doesn’t have to mean very expensive and resource-intensive projects. Especially at first. Start with a small project to increase knowledge, at least enough to make the sustainability pathway clearer. This first step clarifies the action plan so that short term, medium term, and long term goals can be defined. And along the way, each phase can be broken into smaller steps that are easy to fund, easy to tackle, and easy to prove their value. Every proposal or project must clearly show how its results add value to the business – either in cost-savings, waste reduction, or risk reduction. And to know what those returns are before the project even starts is the best way to ensure satisfaction in the C-Suite.
Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry, featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting and reporting, product portfolio assessments, product carbon footprinting, and lifecycle analysis. Carbonostics received a 4.5 star rating in the 2013 Environmental Leader Technology Review. For more on Carbonostics “best-in-class” technology, visit: www.carbonostics.com
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