This article will show you some of the basics of implementing sustainability. Building on that, in the following articles we will apply those basics to company cases to show you some real life implementation options. We planned to do this second article as the grand finale of this series, but in the spirit of the agile character of this sustainability transformation, we went with the flow and changed our minds. And here we go. Let´s start with the beginning…
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts …
We should have built the economy sustainable from the very beginning. We should have taken humbly from the ecosystems. We should have appreciated what we used. We should have been restoring respectfully what we exploited. We should have shared values fairly in between and amongst societies. We – to put it in a nutshell – should have treated creation with the respect it deserves. We should have done the right thing in the first place.
At the time being, some of it we didn ́t know. But mostly, we didn ́t care. Now we need to become sustainable urgently. Not, because it is the right thing to do. This train is long gone. But because we need to solve a multiverse of existential problems. That is not: we do need to become sustainable to fulfill our reporting duties, to please some green party geeks, or to pitch a green company purpose in order to attract professional talents. We need to become sustainable to save our own butts. And those of our children.
Implementing sustainability under lab conditions
Let´s lighten the mood with some stolen intellectual property: “A farmer has some chickens who don’t lay any eggs. The farmer calls a physicist to help. The physicist does some calculation and says ‘I have a solution but it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum!’ ” This joke is taken from the character ‘Sheldon’ from the Series ‘Big Bang Theory’.
The joke describes the situation around sustainable transformation pretty well. Academia has very witty solutions as to how to build a sustainable economy. However, they only seem to work when we design new economies on the drawing board. But how can implementation be conducted under working conditions? Let´s stick to the laboratory conditions for a second and we then go from there…
Logically, you would start with implementing change into your strategy. We explained the reasoning for that in the last article: strong goals will get you places. From setting the right goal, you go ahead and let it sink into your company ,your actions and decisions. You would operationalize your strategy and do many things in parallel and in a connected, interrelated way, like planning your goal attainment, measure your successes along the way, build competence within your staff, steer your processes and implement projects. Eventually, you will be enabled to build transformational competencies within your company. You will allow learning, and acting in an agile way – strategically and operationally – and thus create sustainable value, aligned with your and your stakeholder’s objectives.That would be the textbook way of doing things.
However, reality tends to be much more messy. So, how can we proceed, when there is a running company engine that should not be interrupted too badly?
Understand the problem first to define your sustainability entry point
Sustainability is a state of balance. And we need to get there soon. Very soon. So, how do we do it quickly? The approach is very different for any business or industry. To figure out the entry point and the fastest, value-adding individual way for implementation requires to understand the realm of our problems first. The following list represents (only) the headlines of the most urgent problems:
– Climate change
– Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services
– Resource destruction and depletion (biotic resource depletion leads more to an ecological and existential crisis, abiotic resource depletion to economic distortions. Society loses on both)
– Societal inequities and misfunctions
It seems to be evident that a steel manufacturer mainly contributes to a different problem area than, in comparison, a food corporation, a software house, or an electronics producer. If you want to become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem, you need to figure out into which of the fires you are currently pouring most of the oil. Do you have an amount of energy consumption (fossil fuel) that mainly contributes to climate change? Is your main activity intensive agriculture that fastens biodiversity loss? Are your actions causal to destroying the rainforest, desertification of soil, or debalancing rivers? Does your hunger for a (cheap) rare earth put a lot of pressure on social structures? Make no mistake, however. Eventually, you will need to take care of all of your issues. But you might want to extinguish the hottest fire first.
… and then there´s the regulatory framework, too
There is consensus that a sustainable and circular economy will be the natural successor of our current linear economy, as avoiding and solving those problems will lead to demands and make the market fix itself. However, winning slowly is the same as losing, and the self-fixing abilities of the markets are working just far too slowly! We only have a very small window of opportunity left. This didn´t come as a surprise; we were told so for over more than thirty years.
Now, the forces of the market need an extra dose of amphetamine to righten the wrong, and we cannot bother to whine about potential health-risks any more. Some call it communism (seriously, dude?) but it ́s really just tough love and a hard bump on the breaks: regulations, taxes, artificial price increases … take your pick. But what seems like a too tough curfew for the extra-rebelling teenager in reality is a muscle booster for the markets. Are some of the measures stupid? Patronizing? Contradicting? Annoying? Not well-thought-through? Damn sure they are! We are on a journey and there is no textbook for that kind of historical transformation. But most of them are very useful and important steps to allow the economy to pick up the pace that is needed to win this game in which losing is not an option.
Just a few examples: The market needs true and available information to function – hence the carbon measuring and reporting requirements. The market needs level playing fields to enable sustainable solutions to prevail – hence regulations and taxes to contain old ways and subsidies for new ways to strive. The market needs agreements about the big stuff (e.g. energetic supply security or mobility) to eradicate industrial uncertainties and move all forces into the same direction – hence political decision-making. We will make mistakes on the way and re-adjust measures, directions, and decisions. But the important thing is to stay in motion, in general move into the right direction, and learn and adjust as we go.
You can decide freely about which of the above mentioned problems you should address first. But of course, you also need to take into account the demands of the regulatory frameworks you are faced with. The combination of both will provide you with your entry point.
Let´s talk about your transformational ability
In the last article, we discussed the importance of internal transformational ability. The question of where to start needs to consider this, too.
Are your people ready and able to embrace change and to learn or do they moan about this ‘new carbon religion’? Are you willing and informed enough to integrate sustainability into your strategy or is your company’s philosophy built on the belief that you can just add it anywhere like a beauty spot? Do your structures and processes allow you to integrate change quickly and happily or do you just LOVE your hierarchy-driven ‘we-always-did-it-like-this’ approach?
So, next to the question, of what to integrate, you always want to ask, how respectively to integrate sustainability to get the speed and impact you need.
How to start the implementation?
Well, between the pressing, the urgent, and the available, we find the momentum. Meaning, we identify your most pressing problem, the urgent requirements of the framework, and the available and presenting entry point(s) in your company and start from there.
It sounds easy. We won´t lie to you: there will be work. There will be change. It will be demanding. But it´s also a way to keep the engine running, implement as you go, continue to create value, and remain successful.
Look at examples of how it is done
In the next four articles, we will show you case examples of two companies. One didn´t know where to start, but together we successfully found the entry point and moved from there. The other one already took a lot of good measures but seemed to head into sustainable idle mode – together we connected the measures to the company’s core and helped the business to benefit from their sustainability actions.
Stay tuned, share your thoughts and visit us for the next article.
Do you have questions, goals, implementation ideas and / or would like to have a direct contact? We are looking forward to your message!