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Is sustainability a 'compliance' thing for your company? If so, you're missing out

Until recently, reporting and acting on sustainability has been a matter of choice for mid-sized companies across the UK and Europe. No longer. Mandatory disclosure of climate risks, followed by wider sustainability/ESG reporting, is on the near-term horizon for all companies of 250+ employees, if it hasn't landed already.

That means a lot of overworked executive teams are starting to wrestle with this for the first time. For many, sustainability reporting and action will feel like the dreaded 3Cs: Compliance, Complexity and Cost. 'Let's get that sustainability disclosure work done with minimum business disruption, so we can get on with hitting our growth and profit targets'. In a tough marketplace, that’s entirely understandable; and the disclosure work is a critical foundation.

However, there is an alternative: move on quickly from sustainability-as-compliance to sustainability-as-opportunity. We're in the foothills of what will have to be a wholesale change to how business is done over the next ten years, so businesses that make friends with sustainability will be those that will thrive in the new economy.

What if....

  • ….putting sustainability 'at the core' opened up new growth opportunities and partnerships?

  • ….our path to sustainability drove creativity, participation and pride amongst employees, and helped us recruit the best people?

  • ….it helped us become a business that's designed for tomorrow, not just for today?

If that sounds good, then there’s an opportunity to reframe sustainability in your company.

Discover how reframing sustainability as an opportunity, rather than just compliance, can drive growth, employee engagement, and future success.

For people who work in this space there's nothing new in what I'm saying in the visual above. But I suspect we need to keep saying it, because in my experience a huge % of busy business leaders still put sustainability in a cost/compliance bucket.

Here are three big steps I help companies with, to make it happen.


1.    Executive team offsite(s): 'immerse and imagine'

There's a huge amount for executive teams to take on board. They've reached the top of the organisations by mastering a model of business that's increasingly under challenge. What's needed is (ideally) a couple of days away from the day job to... be inspired; unlearn and learn; connect to the issues at a personal/heart level; have space for active reflection and discussion; imagine what a sustainability-at-the-core business might look like. Of course, board non-execs will need this too, but in my experience most companies prefer to start with senior executives.


2.    Work up a new 'Compass' for your organisation: purpose-led, sustainability-infused

This is where the hard strategic work happens, to bring sustainability to the core of your business. Big questions need to be asked and answered. For example, what are we here for? What positive, other-serving role might our business play in the wider system? How can we (to use Colin Mayer's phrase) 'produce profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet'? How do we develop an even more powerful value creation model, making best use of our capabilities?

Input to this should be as inclusive as possible. The output is your business's Compass, bringing together Purpose, Vision, Business Model & Values onto one page. The Compass is strategically grounded as well as offering a compelling and sustainability-infused narrative of the why, where to, what and how of your business. It rallies employees, drives behaviours and decision making, and catalyses change. 


3.    Enrol & mobilise staff; then customers, suppliers, investors and partners

In a recent survey, more than 80% of staff in a client company I'm working with say they are passionate about sustainability. The fact is, most people want to work for companies that are taking positive action for a better world. They want to feel they're making a contribution on the job and also beyond the job (via eg intrapreneurship or volunteering). Every 21st century job can and needs to be a sustainability job, either in bigger or smaller ways. The key is to give everyone a voice in the process (to ask questions, make sense of these issues, offer up ideas), and give them choices as to how they want to get involved. Once every business unit or enabling function has worked out what their role is, external stakeholder engagement and participation is a natural next step.

No-one is saying the above is simple. But the benefits start being seen quickly.

Sustainability will remain in the cost/compliance box until you and your executive decide to turn it into an opportunity to become a future-fit, employee-mobilised, purpose-led company. If you'd like to discuss how to do that, DM me.

This article was first published in Jan 2024 on LinkedIn


Will Gardner Organisational Purpose & Sustainability Consultant

About the Author

Will Gardner helps leaders to achieve positive change in their organisations and in the world, by unlocking the full potential of their people through Strategy, Team Coaching and Change Leadership.

Will is based near London, but supports organisations worldwide.

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