How to execute on sustainability strategies

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Most chief executive officers believe that within a decade, sustainability initiatives will be integrated with core business activities throughout their global supply chains making green practices the norm in most workplaces. The challenge to getting there is less about vision and strategy - most already have those - and more about execution.

These are among the findings of a June 2010 survey of 766 chief executive officers around the globe conducted by global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture and the United Nations Global Compact. The Compact is an initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

According to the survey, the vast majority of CEOs (93 per cent) report that sustainability will be critical to the future success of their companies. They are signing on rapidly - 81 per cent say sustainability is part of the company's strategy and operations, up from 50 per cent in 2007. And the global economic downturn not only has not dampened enthusiasm, but raised the importance of their sustainability commitment (80 per cent).

Executing on these strategies won't be easy. To integrate sustainability into global business processes and make it the norm will require monumental changes in regulation, technology, investment and consumer behaviour. We believe it can only occur as a result of many discrete projects, executed well, at companies around the globe. A few simple guidelines can help managers achieve the excellence in execution these projects demand.

The first step is to pick the right project. Take a disciplined approach by applying the same level headed analysis you would use in any other strategic business decision.

Keep an open mind when assessing projects. Don't narrow the field before you start your research. And make the search a broad one that considers all the activities of your business, including interactions with suppliers and customers. Make a list of all the areas where projects can make a significant impact, then analyse and compare them.

The project you select should be doable with the available financial and staff resources and within a reasonable amount of time. It should produce results that benefit both the business and the environment - including the strongest possible return on investment. Finding ways to measure where you are and what you hope to achieve are critical to tracking your progress and communicating credible results. But keep in mind that not all measures are quantitative. Brand equity, goodwill, the ability to attract and retain the best and brightest, access to key markets, the popularity of products and services in customers' eyes, the hidden costs of compliance, the health, safety and comfort of workers - all can be improved through green initiatives.

When you carefully consider all these issues, you'll be able to prioritise potential projects and recommend the best option to senior management and, hopefully, move forward with their support. They can help you focus company employees, partners and customers on a common set of goals, helping ensure their passions and creativity are applied to moving your project forward.

Establish a record of success, and you can begin addressing other worthy projects on your list and taking on greater challenges over time. And there will be greater challenges. Early projects likely will focus on doing current processes better, from a sustainability standpoint. To successfully integrate sustainability into the business and make it standard operating procedure, however, some disruptive changes will need to be made. By choosing projects wisely and executing them well, you can build the credibility you need to lead the transformation.

Patty Calkins is the vice president for Environment Health and Safety at Xerox

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