Can we put aside our fascination with Socks to become more sustainable in business?
The call and offer were a regular one – a content marketing company had just analysed my website and found it below par. They could guarantee to deliver millions of leads and 1st place globally in SEO content – watch out the Cambridge Inst. for Sustainability Leadership!. The marketing hook this time was a series of free searches to identify keywords. As wet dark autumn afternoons working from home in the UK can be slow affairs, I decided to take up the offer.
The caller then started feeding back the monthly activity level in the UK arising from a specific keywords that I was interested in. I was surprised by the overall interest levels from keywords associated with ‘Business and Sustainability’ so on my last keyword search I decided to set a baseline comparison keyword to compare previous results against. An earlier online distraction looking for stocking fillers for the family may have influenced my choice.
Keyword Search comparison – results are average monthly
inquiries made to Google
Sustainability in business
Why is sustainability important in business
Socks and sandals
How to improve business sustainability
Role of sustainability in business
Socks for dogs
Business sustainability plan
Benefits of sustainability
Vegan thermal socks
We’ve all have moments in our life when it seems that the
world’s priorities don’t line up with our own.
In this case is was comparing the greater interest in ‘socks for dogs’
and surprisingly ‘socks and sandals’ (the latter a candidate for the return of capital
punishment for social crimes) than the level of UK internet interest in how
sustainability benefits organisations and business activities despite the
strong evidence emerging globally.
There is a visible upturn in business community interest into environmental stewardship affairs and the consequences of poor environmental management practices in areas such as single use plastics, energy management and recycling. However in order to extract the greatest value from organisational initiatives, there has to be senior management commitment to greater business sustainability and a clear understanding of their role in leading the business towards greater sustainability as well as in promoting strategic change when sustainability opportunities, issues and risks arise.
To achieve this, the surest route is through the exploration,
and adoption of strategic sustainability business models within the business owners,
leaders professionals. Executive level decision-makers
still lags far behind that of the wider environmental manager community in their
understanding of future intangible risks associated with sustainability.
Professional development training and coaching can help break down these knowledge barriers, and allow an opportunity for more detailed examination of what opportunities exist and how the integration of a sustainability business model or strategic plan could fit your ‘future fit’ organisational culture. The other great benefit is that it can allow time and an opportunity for senior managers to understand, reflect on and retain a stronger position when reviewing new initiatives arising within the marketplace – or within the minds of more junior colleagues who now hold an alternative worldview on business’s interaction with society.
Key message: Consider your future sustainability and leadership developmental needs in a key area of future business practice, and can Leading Green help you achieve this?.
On the socks front – am I a bad parent for even considering
socks as a present, and is it wrong to feel that I have now at last discovered a
Christmas gift for my eco-conscious, vegan and feminist elder daughter – and the
If businesses continued to hold faith in traditional business
models and management approaches, then it would be unlikely that so many of
them and all business schools would be exploring more sustainable alternatives
as the way forward. The rise of
Sustainability up the Boardroom agenda reflects its close linkage to risk,
governance and strategy agendas. This
has driven increased executive interest in their development, understanding and
ability to lead within a sustainability agenda.
There are 5 good reasons why many business owners and managers are driving more strategic sustainability approaches in their businesses:
Because their current competitors are thinking
Because their clients and customers want them to
Because their next significant marketplace
competitor is already doing it
Because it makes business sense and is the right
move to make
Because they realise their cash flow, profit and
future growth will suffer if they don’t!
For many organizations today, sustainability is the
business. Their founders and leaders have deliberately
positioned themselves within a blind spot within their competitor’s market
insight or have deliberately set out to appeal to consumers who value ethical
and socially responsible products (i.e. Unilever’s domestic cleaning products) and
services (renewable energy suppliers), or who wish to associate with
organisations that mitigate issues of environmental or social concern they are
alert to (i.e. Patagonia’s recycled sea plastic clothing range). In all cases, these organisations possess a
strategic business model that:
Reflect a societal concern within the consciousness of consumers
Delivers a competitive edge over existing incumbent rivals within their market sectors
Stimulate a ‘relationship’ between the business and customers
Drive innovation within existing products and stimulate the development of new longer-term replacements
Increase the motivation and ‘feel good’ engagement with their employer amongst staff; and
disrupt market share.
All organisations ultimately derive their economic activity
from the exploitation of the natural environment and its resources. It is apparent to most organisational leadership
groups by now that climate change and future global resource constraints will
place limitations on future economic growth rates within some sectors, whilst
the exploitation of sustainable resources, such as renewable energy and
hydrogen, holds out the possibility of freeing up others. The strategic sustainability challenge that
many early adopters are addressing is how to replace or secure continued access
to the valuable, rare, difficult to imitate or non-substitutable resources they
These are some of the forward-thinking leadership challenges
that have elevated sustainability from the operational risk domain of QHSE and
organisational green teams green and upwards into the Business Planning and
Enterprise Risk Management domain of the C-suite.
Bridging the Leadership gap
Business owners or executives, with the support of their own
management teams, are the people best placed to bring about organisational
sustainability changes within their organisations. These individuals and teams are the ones who
most clearly understand the existing business, the challenges it faces and to
undertake the analysis of issues and scenarios.
They are also the people best placed to lead any change programme for
sustainability. Consultancies, such as
Leading Green, have the capacity to advise and support, but from experience as
a corporate executive in industry and government, they lack the networks and
insights required to overcome internal blocks.
Key Sustainability Leadership Functions Leading Green Training Courses
Stepping up into a Sustainability Leadership mindset?
Business & Sustainability – The management of
Sustainability issues are not significantly different from
many of the day to day issues that business leaders face. They impact just as readily on long-term cashflow,
profitability, growth, procurement, management, competitiveness and regulation
as much as any more traditional management issue. What sets sustainability leadership and
management practices apart is a greater focus on governance, the long-term
strategic needs of the business and a watching brief over many more intangible
risks than are usually overseen through financial risk management. Those e s that can rapidly engulf a business
and its management team.
The management of intangible risks has as its central focus issues of leadership and behavioural risk. Often derided as ‘soft’ risks, these can have brutal consequences for a business in terms short sightedness as to product life cycle (cradle to grave product type), managerial incompetence in the face of change, s ‘group think’ or ivory tower mind-set and arrogance on the part of management, ethical misjudgement, inability to integrate management, mismanagement of reputation risks, mismanagement of value conflict, poor public relations, ineffective corporate governance, and so on.
Case Study: H&M Conscious Collection derided in the press for greenwashing and for not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes were labelled as sustainable. The furore attracted unwanted regulatory interest . The lesson to be learnt – consumers are more environmentally and sustainably conscious than ever and companies should think twice before making greenwash marketing claims.
In leadership terms, we can be clear that if a sustainability issue becomes material to business success or survival, then only the foolish would ignore it as an issue. What is material will depend on the wider mindset of the leadership team to risk management, the specifics of the industry sector and the degree of dependency in specific supply chains or service providers. The lesson to be learnt is that sustainability and its management must link to and align directly with how the business operates, its expenditure and material flows, its governance and strategic planning processes, and importantly how the leadership team and organisation views its mission and desired approach to business and its customer base.
To continue viewing sustainability as an ‘add-on’ or cost to
the business, keeping it separate from core business decision making and
long-term business planning remains a common mistake amongst many business
owners and managers. Limiting the scope
of sustainability management to marketing, branding and the management of
direct environmental impacts can eventually be a costly mistake.
Sustainability and Responsible Management
Sustainability has developed close links with leadership
theories promoted by many leading Business Schools regarding responsible
management, transformational and ethical leadership practices and Governance within
Boardrooms and senior leadership teams.
It is rapidly shaking off the old misconception of a ‘doing good, but
not core to the business’ managerial activity.
Environmental Management Systems (such as ISO14001) have over the last
three decades provided organisations with a solid administrative base from
which middle and lower tier managers can control bio-physical risks, waste
management and act as a policy platform for other localised or industry
specific issues, but has continued to struggle through lack of leader
engagement to become a strategic tool in business. Hence the revision of the ISO14001 standard
in 2015 to place a greater emphasis on the visible (auditable) commitment to and
engagement with the system by the organisation’s leadership team.
How Inspirational Leaders Bridge the Gap Between Sustainability
I have worked with several visionary business and sustainability
leaders — people who inspire and set the culture within their organisations,
permanently changing how they conducted themselves professionally. They have all had several things in common.
First, they don’t hide out in the management suite – they walk
the floors, engaging with employees across all functions talking about their
aspirations, vision for the organisation and what they are working to
achieve. They also use these floor walks
to gain business & sustainability insights.
Dropping in on teams they repeatedly ask penetrating questions regarding
current issues, behaviours, scenarios and encourage open feedback by encouraging
staff to tell them about what they are concerned with, the practical issues and
realities of life on the shop floor, the perceptions of front line staff on their
client future needs and wants, and critically how engaged with the business the
staff and the organisation’s repeat purchase customers are!
Secondly, they work internally across the business’s boundaries
and reporting lines, helping themselves (and the teams they lead) build up a
wider business mindset of organisational activities and issues. This helps them maximise information flows
and to determine options. They also encourage
their teams to follow a similar open-door approach and to working in collaboration
with other teams – a rare attribute in some organisations where internal discord
and intra-executive competition stifle productivity.
A third skill is an inherent understanding of systems
thinking, the ability to simplify and integrate different systems, and a
curiosity that extends further than just understanding business systems and
processes into innovation and problem solving.
Inspirational leaders have the gift to mentally and linguistically breakdown
issues in their strategic communication skills and actively encouraging:
Cross-silo working and the linking of internal operational activities to deliver mutually beneficial goals;
Challenging and examining individual function and corporate objectives to determine inter-relationships and the potential for unintended consequences; and
delivering business outcomes (including sustainable cash flow) in a way that supports the characteristics of a sustainable organisation.
Fourthly, they create strong teams that foster a wider sense
of corporate engagement, intellectual curiosity, and cross-functional
collaboration than colleagues that focus exclusively on their core
administrative, professional, technical or business support roles.
Finally, transformational business and sustainability leaders
and take accountability and responsibility for their duties. They actively lead their managerial
portfolios and direct them back into the organisation’s primary purpose or
There is now a proven body of research that identifies
clearly that Businesses with strong environmental and social sustainability
leadership approaches commanding greater customer brand loyalty and higher
stock valuations. This is of credit to
the individual executives and managers who have brought about these changes in
organisational culture over the last decade.
One of the most interesting recent trends has been the movement in many Boardrooms to actively engage sustainability risk management approaches as a means of testing the strength in Corporate Business Plans and strategic programmes. Increasingly many are integrating Sustainability and Responsible Management practices with their existing Governance, Enterprise Risk Management and Economic Sustainability activities – as all share a common focus on business longevity. The objective being to provide a clearer boardroom picture on the tangible and intangible factors influencing cash flow, profit, strategic growth, risk and to map emergent trends in organisational culture, consumer and stakeholder relationships.
This willingness to embrace sustainability as a Boardroom
parameter, reflects a greater understanding that an organisation’s
profitability is now a key driver in its valuation. Previously the greater percentage of a
company’s ‘value’ was linked directly to its tangible assets (property, assets,
etc). Today in some of the larger
corporations less than 20% of share price value can be directly attributable to
financial performance and physical assets, the remaining 80% reflecting
intangible assets such as brand, customer base, future market risk,
intellectual capital and whether a business has a ‘future fit’ business model
aligned to responsible management & sustainable business practices.
This has encouraged many business leaders to adopt a more active and hands on role in the management of organisational sustainability practices, rather than just advocating responsibility down to their QHSE teams, increasingly business sustainability leaders and their Boardrooms are identifying why and when a sustainability issue needs to be addressed, and the functional and green team managers then respond in how the business should adapt.
As soon as I see this statement in CSR reports, on websites and in marketing statements, I immediately dig deeper and look for positive proof that the statement can be backed up. I am often disappointed!
This phrase is at risk of becoming a modern day cliché, and any CEO tempted to use it should ensure that they have satisfied themselves:- firstly that the organisation has put a bit more thought behind the phrase than just good PR, and secondly that they personally have an understanding of organisational reality at shop floor or operational level. In fact I often recommend to organisational leaders that they leave the safety and power-interactions in the C-suite and spend time regularly engaging with the workforce …… in listening mode!. Go out and listen to what they are saying, it can be tough but rewarding. Why? because it is common for less than 20% of a workforce to feel ‘engaged’ with the organisation and its existing leadership group.
Whilst it is without question important for employee’s to ‘hear’ a CEO express such a statement, it means nothing unless they ‘feel’ it in their employment or more importantly ‘know’ it in their interactions with their leaders and managers. That’s the true route to having an engaged workforce.
Sustainability means different things in different market sectors, but employee relationships are common to all businesses, and the way in which an employee feels they re ‘valued’ is not just a financial relationship. It can involve many tangible and intangible factors – the organisational culture, how the organisation aligns with their own beliefs and values, and the manner in which the business treats them and wider society – especially in the knowledge based or innovation driven employment sectors! This often determines whether the intangible factors of their goodwill, support, loyalty and ultimately presence are sustained or lost.
An active leadership approach to sustainability within organisations helps employees engage better with the organisation and to feel alignment with it. The best way to demonstrate ‘value’ (rather than state they are valued assets) is to explain directly how the work they are doing is appreciated and important to the business. Take time to research how their contribution fits into the larger picture, and by investing in their growth, engagement and satisfaction.
At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business training & consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals. Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy. 1
I was interested to read that several of the world’s leading jean brands have been working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to lay down a set of Jean Redesign Guidelines based on circular economy principles. The new redesigned jeans will enter the shops next year. The new principles, in addition to focussing on the health, safety, and rights of workers in the fashion industry present minimum requirements for:
Recyclability: Jeans made with greater than 98% cellulose fibres, designing out or minimising metal rivets, and all additional materials should be easy to disassemble.
Material Health: Jeans fibres sourced from regenerative, organic or transitional farming methods; free of toxic chemicals and conventional electroplating; the banning of techniques such as stone finishing, potassium permanganate, and sandblasting.
Durability: Jeans able to withstand a minimum of 30 machine home washes while still meeting minimum quality requirements and have labels with clear information on product care.
Traceability: Confirmation of how elements of the guidelines will be made available, compliant companies will be able to use the ‘Jeans Redesign’ logo, and an annual review of the logo annually based on compliance with the reporting requirements.
Participating ‘denim’ organisations in the scheme currently comprise
Brands: Bestseller, Boyish Jeans, C&A, Gap, H&M Group, HNST, Lee, Mud Jeans, Outerknown, Tommy Hilfiger, and Reformation
Manufacturers: Arvind Limited, Hirdaramani, Kipas, and Sai-Tex.
The initiative represents an interesting case study of organisations adopting a responsible leadership approach to address unsustainable supply chain practices, build trust and co-operating in advance of any need for governmental regulation. It also demonstrates how even a long existing product such as your pair of blue jeans can be redesigned to add new value & continued economic growth within an existing industry, and ultimately recycled back into new jeans at their end of use.
In contrast this week, it looks as if the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a political lobbying trade group (motto – Driving Innovation!) representing 12 of the world’s largest car manufacturers (BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, GM, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo USA) have been lobbying the Trump administration to rewrite existing laws to lower fuel efficiency and fines for missing emissions targets.
Three interesting issues struck me in this case:
Jaguar Land Rover whose range is almost 80% diesel powered have been lobbying the UK government hard for aid to help switch their range over to electric vehicles and to maintain jobs in the UK, but who seem to aspire to other ethics abroad.
The absence of Honda from the group – who are well on with their fleet conversions towards mileage efficiency, lower air emissions or electric power, and finally
The lobbying groups concern for the harm that non-compliance fines for fuel inefficiency would have on auto manufacturers, workers, and ultimately consumers – as opposed to the harm poor urban air quality already has on innocent members of society – which when last checked also included auto manufacturers, workers, and ultimately consumers!
In the wake of the VW-emission rigging scandal and under President Obama, The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was on track to effectively treble the cost of fines levied against vehicles that did not achieve their claimed mileage efficiency. In February, the Trump administration broke off talks with California’s clean air regulators, and last Friday, the administration said that NHTSA would be issuing final rules suspending these regulations. Eighteen US states, including California, have responded by vowing to sue the Trump administration if the vehicle emissions requirement freeze becomes finalized. Now the Trump administration seems to be trying a different tack by rewriting the rules to lower fines for missing emissions targets.
The two scenarios represent two very different approaches to
the challenges that signal whether these companies have a strong enough organisational
culture to demonstrate to the marketplace that they are modern responsible
businesses and responsible players within their respective marketplaces.
It has been clear for many years concerning the global impact that cheap non-recyclable clothing and fossil-fuel based power-train automobiles have been having on our world. The evidence has been there for years, and companies have had time to prepare their responses to the social and environmental challenges faced. Whilst it looks as if the clothing industry is now actively waking up to the challenge of new economic models and consumer values, the automotive industries within the western world, still reliant on their technologies of the past and unable to effectively manufacture many of the future components of tomorrow’s vehicles , still exhibit a worrying tendency to remain in the past.
Two trends I can see myself being affected by in the future:
Within 10 years effectively ‘hiring’ my clothes from a trusted retailer who will take them back for recycling at their end of life
Within 3 years obtaining an electric/hybrid vehicle whose parts and technology primarily originates from the Far East.
At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business consulting and training encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals. Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.
Your first few days in a new job are always daunting, especially when you have been recruited to develop the existing culture towards greater sustainability by enacting a change in the organisation towards a business model that will be new, challenging and will need even the most obstructive manager to change pathways.
One of the first major environmental roles I took on was withina large Scotttish Power Utility with growing interests in England, the US and in the water utility sector. They had decided to recruit a new environmental team to support organisational and operational activities within thier Technology Division. The interview to say the least had been a strange experience, as for over an hour they asked few questions but talking directly at me listing issues they now recognised to be threats to the business. I nodded and looked wise, but was rarely asked how I would seek to handle them if employed. There was clearly no predetermined job description, role or even defined set of environmental accountabilities for the team they were seeking to recruit. There was no compelling company vision for the environment and we were unlikely to receive any further advice from the senior executive in charge of us. His instructions on our first day were simply ‘Go and do something Environmental!’
Well we certainly achieved that, with ScottishPower becoming the first UK utility to gain ISO 14001 subsequently in both Scotland and England, winning numerous CSR awards and developing a strategic approach to environmental impact assessment that is still a successful model 30 years later.
Yes, the first few days are incredibly stressful and daunting for the newly hired sustainability manager, especially when joining a business with little organisational maturity or leadership in that area, or with an undefined sense of what it is seeking to achieve through your employment – resource management, regulatory safeguarding, risk governance or a solid platform for future sustainable growth and value. You have the knowledge, but how are you going to get started applying your talents is the first order of the day.
So here are a few simple tips that I wish I had received back then to get me started as quickly as possible. You have the skills for the role, your mission within the first few weeks is to start integrating and embedding yourself in the organisation and within the awareness of its key players. Start to make friends and allies, ask questions and understand the mood within which strategic decisions are made, and what issues will be receptive targets for your audiences.
Week 1 – Show your face – Talk to everyone and Listen!
1 Learn the company’s language.
Talk to the organisations employees in a style and manner that resonates with them.
2 Get your hands dirty.
Spend your first few days in the office getting acquainted and being available to meet others. As soon as you can, get out into the field, factory, other locations and experience how the organisation is implementing its CSR and environmental policies. Is there a vision or mission statement – is it a living reality of just ‘greenwash’?
3 Meet with the crucial internal staff as soon as possible.
Arrange informal conversations with the key managers and staff whose support and influence will be critical in delivering any future initiative. These are best arranged within the first few weeks into the job.
Listen, listen, listen whilst gauging how positive or negative they are about how your role can improve business growth, values or risk management internally. Are these allies or blockers:
what ssues currently are of concern to them;
what will they be minded supporting;
what advice can they provide re threats and opportunities, market trends: etc.
Month 1 – Establish your personal credentials, start to prioritise your findings and develop your future strategies.
4 Don’t be critical of your predecessors
As a new leader or manager learns more about the way an organisation thinks, functions or behaves, there will inevitably be surprises. No matter how strong the urge to question previous policy, initiatives, etc resist the urge to say anything negative about the previous managers who have sought to implement environmental or sustainability systems. It will be some time before you identify who has done what, and who their internal friends, allies and supporters are. It is simpler just to be positive about the efforts you encounter (which will have been supported by others internally) as the critical building blocks for your own changes that will arise latter.
5 Know your own weaknesses before criticising the organisations.
Seek to identify where your strengths lie and where personal development, training or mentoring/coaching is still needed to enhance your effectiveness in the new role. At the interview you may have promised the earth, those impressions are what you were recruited on and now is the time to reinforce and build up your leadership traits, understanding and in particular – change management skills
6 Prioritise and align
Prioritise what you uncover in terms of tangible business benefit and value, rather than intangible environmental risk. In prioritising what needs to be done, be realistic about what is and isn’t achievable, and consider how they can align with the corporate plan (and its planning cycle) and seek advise on how to incorporate your future agendas into the planning cycle.
Who can you turn to for support— perhaps an internal mentor, other senior managers or even the chairman of the board? Don’t try to do it all on your own – that is a weakness!
90 Days in – Start setting out your personal vision and ideas for alignment, growth and value through sustainability
7 Build a diverse circle of advisers.
New leaders in any organisation need to surround themselves with a variety of viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments as they build up a mental template of how the cogs and wheels of the organisation turn – and at what speed. This is critical as your role will often require more in the way of advocacy instead of ‘power’.
Help develop ideas, strategies and approached through the use of these networks. Seeking to win thier support and patronage if matters have to be referred upwards to other executives, or brought into operational activities if beneficial changes can be enacted quickly by mutual agreement with other managers.
8 Have a Personal Vision
Seek to rapidly acquire a vision of what you want to happen, building this up from the solid foundation of ‘viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments’. You must own the vision and inspire others. Sustainability visions developed by committee tend towards aspirational and consensual, yours must be viewed and admired for being results orientated!
When building a visison, one tip is to start with the end in mind, by making the future direction of travel clearly outcome focussed – others can rapidly acquire a fully understanding, help guide strategic planning approaches and join in thier voices in nspiring & directing others in the organisations realignment towards greater sustainability.
Getting started is hard work, no wonder they say it takes an employee 3 years to understand how an organisation operates and thinks. Leading Green‘s coaching and mentoring services can provide essential support as you build up the confidence to start changing an organisation’s culture towards greater sustainability performance and social responsibility.