Corporate Culture: Driving the Sustainability Agenda

Corporate CultureAs leading organizations successfully incorporate sustainability into their business strategies, the message across industry circles is becoming quite clear and stronger – ‘Sustainability’ is going to play a major role for businesses to thrive.

In order to become a truly sustainable corporation, it is required to move beyond organizational boundaries and influence vendors to adhere to environmental norms and follow sustainable practices. Very recently, for instance, Microsoft has asked its vendors for annual sustainability reports.

Sustainability can also be a business opportunity. Most of our systems and processes do not incorporate mechanisms that would help us monitor ecological footprint. SAP has utilized this opportunity and developed solutions to help companies measure and control their ecological footprint. So, whether it is a Toyota or a Wal-Mart, sustainability implies looking at business challenges from a different perspective and converting them into value propositions.

But is it so easy for companies to embed sustainability? What makes it easy or difficult for companies to make this shift? – Corporate Culture may perhaps be the vital link that can explain why many companies desirous of implementing a sustainability strategy are struggling or failing to get things right. Its time for such companies to realize that in order to make this transition, they need to understand their prevailing culture.

Corporate culture has been well-known to be a defining factor that not only uniquely distinguishes between similar companies but also determines the success or failure of change initiatives. Moving towards sustainability – is a change process. It re-assesses the shared values, assumptions and beliefs.

Culture of Disclosures: You cannot build a sustainability strategy by hiding information.

This is an important aspect for planning a sustainability agenda. The company top-brass needs to answer key questions like – Does the company have appropriate measurement systems in place to record and monitor emissions and other toxic elements it produces? Is the company prepared to disclose information related to its ecological footprint?

In many instances, companies might also need to think about the information they had withheld or skillfully obfuscated from public domain for many years. The repercussions can be frightening or damaging to a lesser extent, but what can be considered as a corporate challenge is to come around this deeply embedded ability to hide facts. This is nothing unusual. Companies have been accustomed to putting such information under the carpet since ages and have stubbornly refuted genuine allegations. The examples of Nike exploiting child labor in South East Asian countries and Monsanto’s DDT are stark reminders.

The CXOs need to put their heads together and decide how the disclosures would be communicated to various stakeholders.

Encouraging Innovation: Sustainability is not a one-time agenda. It needs continuous innovation.

Since the industrial revolution era, environmental and social factors have been grossly downplayed. Our traditional product development strategies do not consider environmental and social implications of production, transportation, usage and disposal of products. Our customary innovative acumen is blind in some sense and relegates to adding value, keeping a limited set of factors under consideration.

This is the reason why many companies are not able to successfully move ahead with a sustainability strategy. Businesses need to re-design their product development strategies so that ecological footprint can be reduced. Wal-Mart has been substituting its energy requirements through the use of roof top solar panels on its stores.

This requires divergent thinking in terms of looking intricately into the materials or components being used; looking out for possibilities for substituting them with low-carbon materials, recycling them or modifying them to reduce wastage. It needs a culture of ‘creative destruction’ where innovations are encouraged, adopted and replaced with newer versions.

Proactive Work-Culture: Sustainability strategy needs foresight. Not hindsight.

A majority of companies work under ‘compliance-mode’. They are more comfortable ensuring that they meet all mandatory environmental conditions. To become a ‘sustainable’ company, proactive work culture is necessary where employees feel the relevance of acting before a crisis. Human resource systems need to orient to sustainability principles, so that employees take initiative and interest in taking appropriate action.

Most companies have adopted ‘conservation’ strategy – saving energy or saving water, as the first few steps towards sustainability. An educated work force could make a big difference in making such initiatives successful!

It is certain that market forces would soon start factoring in ‘sustainability strategy’ as an important aspect of business growth and future prospects. Companies that have to act, need to ponder over some of these challenges.

Editor SpeakThe author is currently Vice President (Sustainable Strategies) at – a market space for ideas

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