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Culture 2.0: Four Ways to Make Sustainability Part of Everyday Practice

NBS’s Embedding Sustainability Working Group reveals four key lessons on how to successfully embed sustainability into your organizational culture.

When NBS released the “culture wheel” in 2010, managers hailed its insights. But, they wanted more.

The culture wheel, developed by Dr. Stephanie Bertels as part of an NBS systematic review, identifies different strategies that companies can use to embed sustainability in their organizational cultures.

Bertels, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, heard from organizations that were using the wheel to chart their companies’ behaviours and identify gaps. Next, they wanted to know which practices were most important, where companies should start, and which practices led to others.

These initial conversations led to the Embedding Sustainability Working Group (ESWG), bringing together nine companies and a research team for a three-year project. Participating companies are inventorying and comparing their existing efforts to embed sustainability, improving those efforts and developing ways to assess their impacts.

The ESWG plans to release an updated, interactive wheel (Culture 2.0) as well as guides to specific practices. But already, insights are available.

Early Look at Culture 2.0

Here are four practical lessons from the EWSG that you can use when embedding sustainability into your work culture:

1) Balance your efforts. The original wheel breaks culture change strategies into formal and informal approaches, and into fulfillment (meeting existing obligations) and innovation (starting new initiatives). Companies that don’t pay attention to all quadrants of the wheel can get into trouble. Bertels recalls one company that focused on innovation at the expense of fulfillment. “They were racing around, winning awards for innovative stuff, but getting fined on compliance.”

2) Share stories, not just metrics. Humans value stories, and compelling narratives can sway behaviour. Storytelling involves discussing challenges, choices, and outcomes, said Bertels. Corporate storytelling often emphasizes outcomes, but talking about challenges and choices that form part of the journey is important as well. Challenges show the context that people face. Communicating choices allows employees to see clear decision points and consider how they would have responded.

When Nathan Maycher, manager of sustainable development at ConocoPhillips, organized a storytelling workshop at the company, he was initially unsure of the reaction he’d get. “I’m a mechanical engineer,” he explains. “It’s a little touchy-feely.” But his fellow employees were enthusiastic. “There was a lot of interest, with people recognizing that it’s not just a sustainability practice but something that can be used in many aspects of the business.

3) For employee buy-in, walk the talk. Companies often communicate a high-level commitment to sustainability (e.g. via goals, mission, or values) but lack basic on-the-ground measures such as energy-efficient lighting, recycling bins, or double-sided printing. This lack of follow-through makes employees skeptical of their companies’ commitment and less likely to take sustainability actions themselves.

4) Create an information loop. Sustainability functions often ask operations for data to feed into reporting. Too often, however, operations staff don’t receive a “goody bag” of compiled data in return, Bertels said. Closing that loop can aid learning and engage operations more fully in the sustainability effort.

The Value of Collaboration between Research and Business

In addition to identifying practical, measurable ways to embed sustainability into an organization’s culture, the ESWG represents an innovative collaboration between academics and the business community. Companies joining the ESWG benefit from the insight of quality researchers — and researchers gain valuable data.

“There’s a need for academic rigour: for someone to be at a certain distance, with permission to criticize you, said James Gray-Donald, vice present of sustainability at Bentall-Kennedy. “You don’t always get that with consultants. This is a partnership: you take your knocks if you suck at something.” Carmen Turner, sustainability leader at Teck, values the “evidence-based work.”

Bertels has gained a deeper understanding of corporate perspectives: “The most intriguing to me is hearing background conversations going on at high strategic levels.”

Companies learn from each other, as well. “There have been interesting collaborative opportunities…informally within the working group, because it’s cross-sectoral,” said Bertels. One company learns from the way another reuses pallets, for example. The ESWG is a “safe space” for companies to share ideas, Bertels said: “We need to facilitate more of that.”

The new culture wheel and other resources will be released to NBS subscribers when available. To learn more about the existing tool and the Embedding Sustainability Work Group, see:

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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