The Sustainability Journey

Many organizations come to us with confusion about where they should start their journey to sustainability…or worse yet, think that they must go into a long and protracted sustainability-planning cycle before getting underway with making a difference!

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Chapter 64, Tao Te Ching ascribed to Laozi)

Many organizations come to us with confusion about where they should start their journey to sustainability…or worse yet, think that they must go into a long and protracted sustainability-planning cycle before getting underway with making a difference!

In this article, we propose that organizations can either "start where they are" and begin taking action right away or establish a solid sustainability strategy and move forward in a more thought-out way.

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We have now helped hundreds of organizations of all sizes, both private and public-sector, start where ever they would like.

In our experience, there are two broad categories of where organizations want to start – some do want to start with a comprehensive sustainability planning process, but others want to “Start where they are” (Bob Willard).

Starting “where they are” is all about baselining their current performance and just begin measuring and tracking their improvements.

We can easily do this in the sustainability world because we have so many pre-built measurement frameworks (UN-SDGs, <IR>, GRI, SASB, B Corp, etc.) that can aid us in addressing aspects of sustainability that might have been previously overlooked.

The trick here is to monitor at-the-speed-of-business. For example, if you have financial or performance meetings monthly, you need to report sustainability metrics monthly too (otherwise you are driving through the rearview mirror). We have developed an inventory of Key Sustainability Indicators (KSI) and a sustainability scorecard that can easily be implemented within whichever framework you use and provide your

business the important, real-time data required to know that you are doing well by doing good.

“Starting where you are” comes in two major approaches: Measure/Improve (or for the process thinkers PDCA Plan-Do-Check-Act) in which a couple of days are spent building your sustainability scorecard and you are off and running. As the KSI show you sustainability-gaps, you launch projects, close the gaps. Repeat.

The second “start where you are” option is ‘establish a baseline-trend, then build your strategy’. The idea with this approach is that strategy development is better if it is based on facts and data. Establish a measurement structure, monitor performance for a while… maybe knock off some low-hanging fruits, and THEN have a sustainability strategy session.

The third option is what seems to come to most people’s mind as the only sustainability journey…

“Build a sustainability strategy” and then begin measuring and making improvements. This route is often chosen because organizations do not understand sustainability enough to be strategic and to take action on it.

Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of people’s time has gone into designing extensive sustainability frameworks… just because it is new to you, that does not mean it is new to the rest of the world and does not mean that you don’t have enough to get started.

Think of it this way… would you even think about building your own car from scratch? (I hope the answer is “no”!) You’d consider what car would meet your needs, would research your options, and then go out and buy the car… maybe ask for some add-ons or special options, perhaps even some after-market things, but basically run with the tried and proven solution.

You can do the same thing with sustainability…but it is way easier to add stuff on! All you have to do is:

1.      Establish your super-long terms goals: the KSIs are especially helpful if doing on your own; many organizations can educate on sustainability if that is desired; then,

2.      Backcast those into what gets done now and phased into the future; then,

3.      Get acting, get measuring and continuously get clear on what your gaps are. Repeat.

Provided that an organization is committed to the journey it chooses, any of those listed above can be highly effective means to get started. However, for any successful sustainability journey, the key is that the organization is closing its sustainability gaps as well as expanding its awareness of what sustainability is and what impact the organization is having over time. Taken together, any organization can accelerate progress and realize the benefits of moving towards a sustainable future.

"All Roads Lead to Rome" (Ascribed to  Milliarium Aureum .... Golden Milestone)

So here’s the complete road map…


Brett Knowles

Brett Knowles is a thought leader in the Strategy Execution space for high-tech organizations. His client work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune, and many other business publications.

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