How to Embed Sustainability in Organizational Culture

This framework of best practices and tools helps managers embed sustainability into corporate culture and build meaningful change.

60 Practices for Developing a Corporate Culture of Sustainability

93% of CEOs see sustainability as important to their company’s future success. Yet, most do not know how to embed sustainability into day-to-day decisions, processes, and corporate culture.

Leading firms want to understand how to ‘sustain’ sustainability over the long term. Increasingly, they see organizational culture as a fundamental part of the shift toward sustainability.

This NBS executive report, Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture: A How-to Guide for Executives, presents a framework to evaluate and improve efforts to embed sustainability in corporate culture.

Organizational Culture Sustains Sustainability

Firms often ask: How do we ensure that sustainability remains in the organization after the CEO or sustainability officer leaves?

An organization’s culture determines the answer, shaping practices in an ongoing way, throughout the organization.

Organizational culture establishes and reinforces expectations about what is valued and how things should be done. For this reason, culture is often described as “the way we do things around here.” Over time, organizations builds up their own culture, providing a sense of identity to members about “who we are” and “what we do”’ An organization’s culture is reinforced and reshaped through the daily practices of its members.

A culture of sustainability is one in which organizational members hold shared assumptions and beliefs about the importance of balancing economic efficiency, social equity and environmental accountability.

A Portfolio Approach to Embedding Sustainability

This report is designed for executives, senior HR managers, and senior sustainability managers. It outlines a ‘portfolio approach’ to help practitioners embed sustainability into organizational culture. Organizational practices are grouped into four quadrants: fostering commitment, clarifying expectations, building momentum for change, and instilling capacity for change.

 
 

The full report, Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture: A Systematic Review of the Body of Knowledge, describes each practice in more detail and provides specific examples. Practices that the research identified as effective as well as practices that show potential but remain unverified by the research are included in the framework.

Fostering Commitment: Informal Practices for Delivering on Sustainability Goals

Practices in this quadrant aim to build and reinforce the importance of sustainability for the organization, and to support and encourage employees who are making efforts to embed sustainability.

Sample Practice: Support

 
 

Make it easier for employees to make sustainability decisions at work. Provide support for employees to make sustainability decisions in their personal lives such as transit pass programs, ride sharing, and secure bicycle parking.

Clarifying Expectations: Formal Practices for Delivering on Sustainability Goals

Practices in this quadrant involve establishing rules and procedures, with the goal of clarifying employee expectations regarding sustainability. These practices aim to:

  • integrate sustainability into the core of the organization’s strategies and processes;

  • equip and encourage employees via training and incentives; and

  • measure, track, and report on the organization’s progress.

Sample Practice: Assign Responsibility to Senior Leaders

 
 

Assign responsibility for sustainability to board members and/or a board subcommittee. Assign responsibility for sustainability to the CEO and to roles within senior leadership at your organization. Consider creating a VP Sustainability.

Building Momentum for Change: Informal Practices for Innovation

Practices in this quadrant aim to support a culture of sustainable innovation by developing new ideas needed to bring your organization closer to its long term sustainability goals. These practices inspire and reassure employees so that they can experiment, try new things, and build on each other’s ideas.

Sample Practice: Experiment

 
 

Encourage research and experimentation aligned with the company’s sustainability values. Provide autonomy to workers and managers to develop new solutions to sustainability challenges. Allow self-started projects to germinate and flexibility in implementation.

Instilling Capacity for Change: Formal Practices for Innovation

Practices in this quadrant are categorized as learning and development practices. They represent rules and procedures that lead to innovation. The categories in the quadrant are learning and developing.

Sample Practice: Benchmark

 
 

Select sustainability metrics to facilitate benchmarking. Decide which information you will make public so your performance can be compared with that of other companies. Consider benchmarking internally between divisions, business units, or locations.

Parallels to the Safety & Ethical Conduct Movements

The sustainability movement exhibits strong parallels to the safety and ethical conduct movements of years past. Research indicates that organizations must implement a combination of diverse practices – otherwise known as a ‘portfolio approach’ – to fully entrench the desired changes.

Consider the organization-wide safety practices that now represent standard operating procedures for many organizations in the developed world:

  • Safety goals are often integrated directly into an organization’s strategic objectives.

  • Responsibilities are embedded into current roles, or new roles are created, to address safety issues within the organization.

  • Formal safety policies are written and enforced.

  • Employees receive regular education and training related to workplace safety.

Suffice it to say, embedding safety in organizational DNA has required a combination of different practices, including formal and informal, strategic and tactical, top-down and bottom-up. The same appears to be true for sustainability.

Canadian Success Stories

Read the executive report for examples of Canadian firms who discovered how to build sustainability into their core culture:

  • Tembec, a forest products company, realized benefits for its employees through external engagement and partnership activities.

“We learn about emerging issues that were not part of our education, which increases our professional credibility. In this economic climate, there isn’t a lot of space to learn and innovate but we make it work.” – Chris McDonell, Manager of Environmental and Aboriginal Relations, Tembec

  • Canadian Pacific, a logistics and shipping company, implemented a campaign to reduce the use of bottled water and educate employees about broader sustainability issues.

  • Suncor, an integrated energy company, wanted to ensure they were consistently meeting their environmental commitments at various facilities; adopting one company-wide approach was critical for defining the new culture of sustainability.

  • Teck, a mining company, created a cross-functional working group to develop its sustainability vision, strategy, and action plan. This resulted in an active, company-wide engagement in sustainability.

“[Göran Carstedt, former president of Volvo and IKEA] asked us what kind of company we want to be. After that presentation, I had such good feedback – people wanted to be part of creating a sustainable future.” – Carmen Turner, Leader, Sustainability at Teck

Baseline/Gap Analysis or New Program Implementation

Use the Portfolio Assessment Tool to conduct a baseline assessment and gap analysis for the organization as a whole. Or, use the framework to plan what practices you will use to support the implementation of a particular program.

Step 1

When conducting a baseline/gap analysis, place a check mark next to the practices that you already employ. If you are planning a new program, place a check mark beside those that you plan to employ.

Step 2

Take a look at the distribution. Do you make use of a sub-set of practices from each quadrant? Are you making use of the supported practices? Do you expend too much energy in one quadrant at the expense of others?

Step 3

Circle additional practices that you might want to consider, emphasizing those that have been demonstrated to be effective. See the full systematic review for more details making use of the framework.

Who Should Read The Report

Executives, senior HR managers, senior sustainability professionals, and change agents with a vested interest in making sustainability core to their organization’s success.

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