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
Bridging the Gap between Sustainability & Business
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 either in the blind spot of thier competitors or have a clear strategy to differentiate themselves from other sector suppliers by appealling directly to consumers who value ethical and socially responsible products (i.e. Unilever’s domestic cleaning products), services (Green Tariff 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).
Why develop a Sustainability based Business Plan?
In all cases, these businesses possess a strategic sustainability in business model that:
Reflect a societal concern within the consciousness of consumers
Delivers a competitive edge over existing incumbent rivals within their market sectors
Stimulates a ‘relationship’ between the business and customers
Drives innovation within existing products and stimulates the development of new longer-term replacements
Increase the motivation and ‘feel good’ engagement with their employer amongst staff; and as importantly
disrupts the market share of established suppliers .
The Risk of Remaining Unsustainable in Business
If a business wished to continue holding faith in more traditional business models and management approaches, then they have to ask themselves the question ‘Why are so many businesses changing course?’ and ‘Why are so many leading Business Schools exploring sustainable alternatives as the economic way forward.
What has propoelled the rise of Sustainability in Business so far up the Boardroom agenda, and in many of these Boardrooms why are they valueing the addition of sustainability into risk, governance and strategy debates. The upshot of this is that there is now a clear demand for business leaders and managers who have an understanding of sustainability issues and risks, comprehend responsible management and who are able to take accountability for sustainability initiatives within the business agenda.
All organisations ultimately derive their economic activity from the exploitation of the natural environment and its resources. You may be an IT or Financial sector player, or a Property Asset Manager, but ultimately what you in and on has at its basis the need for primary environmental resources such as
food (including seafood and game), crops, wild foods, and spices
raw materials (including lumber, skins, fuel wood, organic matter, fodder, and fertilizer)
energy (hydropower, biomass fuels)
Climate Change & Economic Exploitation
It should be 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 critical issue is to what degree will they and thier choosen sector be impacted upon.
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 require!
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.
‘EIA Project Managers focus on project targets and processes, EIA Leaders focus on project outcomes’
I believe this to be one of the fundamental mindsets that leaders in EIA possess, and a factor that helps them move up a tier in the profession. The right leadership in the environment of today’s project management world is crucial to providing a clear path and vision for attaining organizational as well as sustainability goals. In the EIA and infrastructure development world, it is also about creating agile teams with S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) goals backed up by effective team management skills to execute desired outcomes effectively and to become more agile in their approach in handling uncertainties within IA and its related assessments.
As a EIA leader you are ultimately measured on one thing — the results that you deliver within the project scope. Given this ultimate measure and its wider importance to local communities and society in general, it is vital that you are outcomes focussed from the start (pun intended!).
So what are the key benefits of being an outcome focussed EIA Team Leader? As I see it there are 5 key benefits.
If you are crystal clear what you want and where you want to take the project, issue or project team during the project, it becomes much easier to communicate it to those that you are interacting with or leading. If you can communicate an inspiring vision for the future, you are much more likely to get project managers, engineers and team members to support you in translating this into design options and ultimately reality.
Benefit 2: Time
No one has ‘too much’ time in projects, it is a rare luxury in our or any profession involved in infrastructure and construction. It is how we use that time that makes the critical difference. When you are outcomes focussed, you spend your time on those areas that are likely to leverage the greatest benefits for yourself as a leader, for the EIA and for the wider project.
Benefit 3: Big picture
It is all too easy, especially in times of project challenge to become obsessed with the detail and trivial stuff. During these periods it is easy to lose sight of the big picture – reducing residual impacts and promoting sustainable development. Being outcome focussed helps you remember the big picture and what you want to achieve for the project, the project team, for your organisation and for you personally as an advocate of sustainable development.
Benefit 4: Planning
They say that failing to plan is planning to fail. If you are clear about what you want to accomplish, it becomes much easier to plan what you are doing, when you are doing it and how you will achieve it. When you sit down to work out EIA priorities you can simply ask yourself – ‘will this move me closer to the outcome I want?’.
Benefit 5: Results
EIA Leaders that focus on the outcomes get more done and as a result deliver better EIA outcomes for society. As you achieve one result, it will act as a reinforcement and motivation to achieve more – this helps start and reinforce the leadership cycle within you.
The take away message — Being outcomes focussed can lift your EIA performance and your own brand of EIA leadership to a new level. So start considering the formal and infomal roles that EIA leaders fulfil in projects and what steps can you can personally take to re-focus on outcomes?
At Leading Green, our approach to environmental leadership mentoring & 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. We run the only EIA leadership course that has been accepted for delivery by the Internation Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) at thier annual conference.
In the late ‘80s I entered the Power Industry. I was tasked with helping ScottishPower set up its first environmental team. There were no rules, little supervision and precious few guidelines on ‘how to get green done’. My MD’s first words to me were on the rabbits at the bottom of his garden – no doubt a fascinating topic to this new breed of non-engineering employee!
Soon after this I was working with one of the older mechanical engineers on an air dispersion model for a proposed waste-to-energy plant. I used an early ADMS computer programme, he achieved comparable results on the back of an envelope! I was bemoaning my lack of experience in this area and the difficulties I faced relating the result to potential dioxin dispersion, and how I would incorporate the results into the Environmental Impact Assessment.
‘Experience’ he gently said, ‘Experience is only gained through facing up to your lack of experience!’ A great lesson from a highly intelligent and modest man.
Now after 25 years’ experience in environmental impact assessment, management and sustainability I find myself addressing 3 common themes again and again with new sustainability and environmental managers during mentoring discussions:
1. You don’t have to
‘The more you know, the less you know’. As you grow in confidence and knowledge the questions get bigger as new areas open, new linkages are found, and solutions open further avenues of mental exploration. No one person can ever understand the complexity of ‘the environment’ – for heaven’s sake we don’t even possess an internationally recognised definition for the word. We must accept that often what we face is novel, specific to that location and has a mass of intangibles tied up with it.
You must come to accept that in some areas you will alays remain a ‘professional generalist’ – able to cover a wide spectrum of environmental topics, expert in some but only touching the surface of others.
What’s the solution – learn to ask others for help! It isn’t weakness it is a strength that will pay back dividends if managed carefully. I have worked with many great environmentalists and engineers on a large variety of complex large infrastructure and sustainability management projects. I have been thrown into stakeholder bearpits, investment board meetings and national emergencies such as flooding, food & Mouth epidemics and terrorist incidents. There is no previously written guidebook on how to manage, but the best possible approach is to surround yourself with, or have access to, those that can add to the jigsaw solution. If you don’t know the answer, the best route is always to say either ‘I don’t know but I will find out and come back to you on that issue’; ‘Do any of you know the answer to this’ or ‘Can you engineer me a better solution with these outcomes’.
Rather than losing trust by displaying ignorance, it builds trust as you solve complex problems as a team, your colleagues comes to realise that they are dealing with a professional who understands the risk in, and limitations of, their knowledge, is prepared to say so honestly and work with others co-operatively to find a solution. The worst thing you can do is bluster or pretend that you fully understand all the parameters of the dilemma. No one expects you to know everything. Relax. And ask open questions that may stimulate the answer through others. Try it!
2. My problem is unique.
I have seen young managers work themselves into a state
because they feel that they are the only one at this coalface. The organisational culture is unique, the
problem is unique and hence the solution must be unique. They feel that the problems they face are so
specific to them, so much so that external advice or options will not help.
What is the solution
– You can internalise a problem and hope that your mental skills set can find a
solution, or you can externalise a problem and gain help? Whichever route you take the responsibility
for solving the problem remains with you and must be ultimately owned by you as
the leader. Personally, I often enjoy
switching into an external mindset when debating problems and potential
solutions, I want to hear how others think about the issue, what they suggest
and what experiences they can bring to the table. I also data mine externally looking at how
other organisations have addressed the issue to gain ideas. I then go back and work through the new
information, sifting for ideas and a solution that fits before taking the
decision to press forward again.
As Tom Lehrer in 1953 so aptly put it about the secret of being
a successful mathematician:
‘Plagiarize! Let no one else’s
work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So, don’t shade your eyes but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’!”
This has helped me find solutions to laying underground electricity cables in water pipeline technology, decision making models via the car industry, and ecological answers in hardware shops. Keep your problem-solving radar active and never let a good idea pass you by!
Your responsibility ultimately lies in making the decision on
how the organisation progresses, you can’t duck this, and the decision risk should
always remain with you as the accountable leaders. You can make decisions via committee but
watch out for group think and consensus through banality. The most appropriate approach is often to
cast widely, listen to what others have to say, challenge their assumptions
(try playing the Devil’s Advocate in conversations) and ultimately select the
one that you can confidently deliver on through your abilities, resources and organisational
3. Are you following your ideas at the expense
of working for the best interests of the organisation?
have seen young professionals run into a mental wall when their goals are
dashed through organisational inertia to change. I have experienced it myself at times, and it
can set you back mentally and physically when an organisation refuses to change
its preferred ways of working.
Then is the time to take a good long hard look in the mirror … were you following your own preferred agenda or in the best interests of the organisation. Had you planned sufficiently, had you sold the idea to others, sufficiently and ultimately would it have added value? I have seen environmental and general managers pursue microcosm agendas that no one else in the organisation believes in or understands. As a Case Study, a previous Director who fixated on the cost of biscuits served in meetings whilst his division’s budget was cut… we wanted strategic changes, he wanted Rich Tea biscuits.
have on occasions advised environmental managers to look hard at their priorities,
not only through an environmental lens but also what it will mean in terms of
enterprise risk management, the corporate plan. Internal budgets, brand and
stakeholder benefits. Incorporating
these factors into your sustainability agenda helps prioritise action, expands
your organisational worldview, forces you to seek input from others and to
understand how their cog spins in the corporate machine and who they interface
What is the solution – Ask yourself whose sustainability agenda are you working on and what is the desired outcome? Is it your own preference, added value for the organizations or the world? These objectives are not either/or options they interact, but there are trade-offs, and ultimately your focus must be on the operational, economic and sustainability of the organisation that employs you. That doesn’t mean that you say ‘yes’ to everything. You are there after all to bring through cultural change management towards a more sustainable operating business model. But in organisational life there are often trade-offs that need to be considered, and these may require you to put aside your personal sustainability agenda for the moment and get stuck into the priorities of others in the business. Similarly pursuing a radical sustainability agenda will not be in the best interest of a company if no one understands its value, instead a more strategic, leading-but-not-agitating approach may take you further. Whatever your agenda, the preferred legacy is that your colleagues adopt the initiative into their personal worldview, live it and hopefully pass it on others – that is success in sustainability leadership book!
At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business 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.
Leading Green is delighted to announce a new Sustainability in Action leadership course for Environmental Management, EHS and Sustainability professionals.
Obtaining Top Management Support (a new 1 day course)
22 – 25 January 2019
Getting across the board buy-in for sustainability in organisations can be difficult. Progressing strategic actions that create visibility for and awareness of sustainability, both inside and outside the organisation will require top management support. When seeking to change an organisation’s sustainability culture, their support – which must also require their participation and involvement, may be the most important success factor before you start!
Top management support is the critical success factor when progressing a business sustainability agenda.
This one day course sets out a strategic pathway that aims to supports you
self-assess the degree to which a sustainability framework is embedded across your organization, helping you understand your company’s progress, and
where to prioritize your efforts (1/2 day).
The second half of the day sets out a toolbox of tips and tactics to help win support, participation and involvement from the CEO and senior leadership team,to identify opportunities to support your CEO’s journeys to embed sustainability, and to increase the visibility of for sustainability initiatives within your organisation.
The course focuses on your day-to-day activities and your organisations direction of travel. It follows an established pathway, used successfully within several Business Schools and international organisations. The course’s objective is to help you personally:
Advance your organisation further along the path from environmental management/EHS to sustainability
Self assess progress year on year
Introduce your sustainability agenda to senior management
Increased your corporate visibility
Align Sustainability with the Corporate Plan, and
Demonstrate value and win support.
The Courses will be held during the 22nd – 25th January 2019 in Birmingham (2 days); Sheffield (1 day) and Lincoln (1 day).
This 1 day course is designed to align with IEMA’s CPD requirements for environmental professionals, with elements of the course corresponding to requirements within IEMA’s Sustainability Skills Map.
For further information, delegate rates and details contact: Ross Marshall at email@example.com or view the Training page.
Supporting Business Leaders implement Sustainability in Business
Ross Marshall has over 25 years experience of senior level Corporate Environmental Management & operational Sustainability within the Power, Water & Government Sectors. He is involved in the accreditation of environmental professionals for IEMA.
At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business training & consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths. Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.
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