Simply Google “sustainability” and you’ll get a vast array of different definitions and results from Wikipedia, online dictionaries, reports, corporate statements, as well as a plethora of articles about everything from separating recycling to making your own compost. The term covers a great deal and perhaps this can be interpreted as an answer in itself.
What is it really about?
In brief, sustainability is about individuals, companies and organisations taking joint responsibility to actively handle economic, environmental and social issues. Most definitions of sustainability work involve taking our future world into consideration and taking a long-term approach to economic, environmental and social concerns.
How others are working on sustainability
As there is no one clear-cut definition, most organisations work on sustainability in very different ways. Both the approach and the results can vary considerably. This means that you can be quite free in deciding the focus of your sustainability work. Sustainability is often heavily dependent on the sector the company operates in and on its internal and external stakeholders.
But how can sustainability work be a success then?
As with any other project, it’s important to start at the beginning, make a plan and then make sure you have the right tools before you begin implementation.
1) Define your challenge
Begin by asking the question: “What does sustainability mean for us?” Remember that the answer must fit your organisation and that it’s absolutely essential to incorporate requirements, needs and preferences from internal and external stakeholders, as well as any laws and regulations. One practical way of obtaining an answer is to carry out a materiality analysis where internal and external stakeholders are each given an axis on a matrix. The importance to the stakeholders is marked from high to low on each axis.
2) Define your goals
The next step is to clearly formulate your objective: “What do we want to achieve with our sustainability work?” One good approach is to prioritize goals based on the areas that are most important to your stakeholders, while remembering not to have too many goals and not to make them too challenging. Overambitious goals that cannot be achieved lead to the same results as not setting goals at all. Focus on what’s most important and formulate a reasonable number of goals that you believe in 100%. Use the SMART model to formulate your goals.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-bound.
3) Make a plan
Once points 1 and 2 have been settled, it’s time to make a plan for how to achieve the goals through your sustainability work: “How will we achieve each of our goals?” This is the time to establish interim goals, indicators/key ratios and activities for each of the overall goals. Additionally, create a model for risk assessment with the accompanying measures, so you are always prepared if something doesn’t go to plan.
One good way of supporting efforts to answer the three above questions is to reference existing guidelines, frameworks and standards. GRI, ISO standards, the UN Global Compact and Agenda 2030 and others can provide tips for managing and systematizing your sustainability work. Furthermore, many organisations are transparent about their sustainability work and openly publish reports on their websites. In other words, there is a lot available in the way of free lessons, information and inspiration.
We hope you now have some good ideas about where to begin with your sustainability initiatives. With so much public focus on sustainability work in the world, it’s no longer a question of if you need to create a plan for your sustainability work, but when.