The Biggest Mistake Sustainability Champions Make

Oct 24, 2012 10:30 AM ET

The Biggest Mistake Sustainability Champions Make

Recently, I spoke on an online dialogue about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Canada and had an audience member asked me about how business’ CSR investments will be affected by the economic downturn.  This great question is one that numerous professionals are concerned with as they move into budget season…

Some recent studies, such as GreenBiz’s State of Green Business Report, show an increased investment in business sustainability initiatives over the past couple of years, in spite of the economic downturn. This flies in the face of conventional (old) thinking that sustainability / CSR initiatives get cut when budgets are tight. However, at the same time, I have talked to some professionals leading sustainability efforts who have see their available resources decline; So why are there different stories here?

Well, I feel that this relates to the biggest mistake sustainability champions make when trying to gain traction for sustainability in their organizations: they do not position sustainability as an enabling strategy to achieve business priorities. Instead, sustainability is positioned as separate from business success, so it is not surprising that these sustainability initiatives get cut when it comes time to look at the budget.  Conversely, the organizations that position sustainability as an enabler of business priorities often see their budgets increase.

What can a sustainability champion do then?  Well, first, try to understand the current priorities for the business or department and identify how sustainability can be an enabler:

  • If winning the war for talent is important, explain how graduates are increasingly using a business’ CSR performance to determine where to work
  • If cutting costs are important, explain how businesses have saved billions in energy efficiency measures
  • If brand and reputation are important, explain the increasing expectation of customers and investors for social and ecological performance
  • ...and so on.

One great resource that can help you with this is a set of slides offered by sustainability guru Bob Willard, which are rich with statistics to help build the business case for sustainability.

Once you know the priorities, identify an initiative that can lead to positive social and ecological impacts as well address an important business issue.  You don’t even need to call it a sustainability initiative; in fact, perhaps it is better if you don’t.  Call it an “efficiency initiative,” “market study,” “leadership training,” “stakeholder mapping,” or whatever makes the most sense in your context.  If you need to, position these initiatives as pilots to learn from and only scale them up if they are successful. 

If you position sustainability as an enabling strategy you will help people understand how it translates into business value and demonstrate that it’s not just a “nice to do, tree-huggy thing.”  It will also help you build credibility as someone who cares about the business.