Sustainability Sustainability & ESG

5 Ways New Sustainability Management Responsibilities Can Leverage Existing Strengths

Leaders are prioritizing sustainability more than ever. Here's how they can become the sustainability champions of their organization and motivate employees to join the call to action.

Cross-functional collaboration across an organization is a key to implementing a strong sustainability strategy and avoiding information silos. Not only do C-Suite roles benefit from exchanging ideas, but they can motivate roles of all levels to embrace a sustainability agenda. With the right ESG software, internal sustainability communication about performance, progress, and goals becomes much easier. 

Research shows that CEOs are increasingly focused on improving the environmental sustainability of their organizations. A 2022 Gartner survey ranked environmental sustainability 7th among the top ten CEO priorities for the first time. Many CEOs are expanding focus on all sustainability-linked goals across an organization. 

Yet, not all businesses have the budget or human resources to hire new staff or develop new teams. This is why many traditional C-Suite roles are picking up new sustainability-linked responsibilities and exploring creative ways to distribute responsibilities across an organization.  

Here are some examples of how sustainability responsibilities can impact management responsibilities across different departments:

  • CSO or other sustainability lead, such as CEO:
    • Establish net-zero goals 
    • Integrate sustainability goals and targets into business strategy
    • Communicate the sustainability strategy and incorporate it into management responsibilities
  • Finance, Accounting and Investor Relations
    • Access sustainability bonds or loans
    • Integrate sustainability information into financial statements
    • Report on sustainability progress
  • Audit, Legal, Regulatory Compliance and Risk Management:
    • Assess, track and monitor sustainability risks related to climate change, water and biodiversity
    • Comply with sustainability regulations 
    • Establish internal controls to ensure sustainability goals are met 
  • Human Resource Management:
    • Recruitment, promotion, training and engagement linked to sustainability
    • Incorporate sustainability responsibilities into job descriptions
    • Link executive compensation to sustainability goals
  • Supply Chain Management:
    • Revise supplier code of conduct to reflect sustainability requirements 
    • Train suppliers on sustainability topics
    • Access supplier environmental data 
  • Operations:
    • Track and monitor CO2 emissions, energy use, water use, waste 
    • Implement projects and changes to meet environmental sustainability targets 
  • Product, Sales and Marketing:
    • Develop products that support clients’ or customers’ sustainability goals
    • Highlight the sustainability benefits of products and services 
    • Use messaging that avoids greenwashing

A comprehensive sustainability strategy can affect almost every department in an organization, but not all managers or employees will necessarily see the significance of a sustainability strategy to business goals. This puts smaller companies that need a sustainability strategy in a bind, as a budget-conscious “lean” sustainability strategy requires organizational buy-in. A lean budget may eliminate the option to hire new roles or consultants.

Here are 5 critical ways to distribute sustainability responsibilities in a way that leverages the existing strengths of an organization: 

  • Design a sustainability roadmap
  • Acknowledge organizational culture
  • Set the tone at the top
  • Build momentum in the middle
  • Rely on technological assistance

Design a sustainability roadmap

 Sustainability is an organizational concept that neatly summarizes a very complicated set of ideas: 

  • Strategy that considers the input of multiple stakeholders, including investors, employees, customers, suppliers and community members. 
  • Policies and management approaches that align with the strategy
  • Long-term commitments and targets, as well as KPIs and activities designed to achieve these goals 
  • Communication and reporting processes to share all of these details

Clearly, companies in the initial stages of developing their sustainability strategy won’t be able to incorporate every concept simultaneously, highlighting the importance of strategic planning.

Creating a road map is essential to building a sustainability foundation that can be improved over time. It is also important to understand that sustainability doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That said, this is why involvement at the C-suite level and across all levels of management and associates is critical

Acknowledge organizational culture

Organizational culture is the vision, purpose and attitudes that people within an organization share, and it can have a profound influence on how organizations respond to new needs, such as sustainability programs. The motivating force of an organization can tell you a lot about how it operates. For instance, companies may be more motivated to make early breakthroughs, maintain market presence, build connections through partnerships, or grow the fastest. 

Organizational culture is especially relevant for a sustainability strategy, which requires a long-term perspective and commitment to a process of “continuous improvement.” Sustainability improvements can occur in different ways: iterative, incremental, disruptive or standards-aligned. 

It’s important to choose approaches to sustainability that leverage the existing culture. This may mean making efficiency improvements to achieve cost savings for one organization, or leveraging certifications or external verification to embed strong management principles for another. Reflecting on culture can help you choose a sustainability strategy that will resonate with the people in an organization. 

Set the tone at the top

CEOs are often the focal point within an organization that sets the tone about what matters and why should matter to every employee and business partner of the organization. For companies requiring a lean sustainability strategy, the C-Suite will be the “sustainability champion” for the company. They will assume responsibility for enacting the sustainability vision and purpose, while also making critical sustainability-linked decisions. 

CEOs not only communicate their values, they lead by example, and the same principle applies to sustainability. Communication around a new sustainability strategy is as important as the concrete steps that align with these communications. 

Greenbiz suggests that one of the ways to create a culture responsive to sustainability is to embed it in decision making. Making sustainability decisions aligned with organizational culture, and setting the right context for these decisions is an essential task that CEOs must embrace as they establish new sustainability systems and strategies. 

Build momentum in the middle

One frequent criticism of external consultancies implementing sustainability strategies is that these approaches don’t always align well with an organization’s values or principles. Companies implementing a lean sustainability strategy, may not have the budget. Organizations are increasingly broadening managers’ responsibilities to include sustainability targets, projects and initiatives. 

In fact, the more a sustainability strategy is delegated across different departments in an organization, the more momentum it can build. This way, new opportunities arise to assemble cross-functional teams that collaborate, collect data, compare notes and take action. 

Instead of adding new tasks to their regular responsibilities, a sustainability strategy can inspire managers to use their problem solving skills. Never static, sustainability management requires critical thinking and diverse skill sets to challenge the business status quo. Sustainability gives managers an excuse to do more than go through the motions. Instead, they can develop novel solutions and business cases for their innovations.  

Rely on technological assistance

Managing sustainability data is a critical element of a sustainability strategy, as almost every sustainability goal and target will be scrutinized by external stakeholders including investors and in some cases, regulators or auditors. A classic mistake many organizations make when they take on a sustainability strategy is to use non-specialist software like Excel to record their data. 

This can multiply the complexity and time commitment required to manage sustainability data. The sustainability management learning curve should never fall solely on the shoulders of an individual assigned to be the data owner. Technological assistance from sustainability software reduces the likelihood of data entry errors or sustainability system design failures. 

Sustainability software and data management tools like Atrius Sustainability are potentially more cost-effective than the cost of extensive training or hiring specialists to manage different types of sustainability data.  Atrius Sustainability, for example, embeds relevant categories, automations, information architecture, and data outputs specific to each environmental topic, including emissions, energy, water, waste and biodiversity, minimizing time spent analyzing and inputting data constantly.

5 steps for a lean sustainability strategy

Once again, these are the five key steps to leveraging your existing human capital to implement a sustainability strategy for small and medium-sized organizations: 

  1. Design a sustainability roadmap
  2. Acknowledge organizational culture
  3. Set the tone at the top
  4. Build momentum in the middle
  5. Rely on technological assistance

Atrius Sustainability is a centralized ESG data hub for delivering robust insights on your environmental sustainability. 

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