Although there are people still wondering exactly what the new field of corporate sustainability is all about, it has firmly taken root in mainstream corporate America. Leaders in sustainability are introducing a new corporate culture that is sweeping through their own organizations, up and down their supply chains, into trade associations and across geographical regions.
Sustainability trends are often more qualitative than quantitative, and thus can be described more readily than they can be counted. The National Association for Environmental Management, which brings together environmental, health and safety (EHS), and sustainability managers, published the report "Planning for a Sustainable Future" earlier this year describing the trends seen emerging this year and next.
The report, based on in-depth interviews with leading EHS and sustainability managers at large member companies, reviewed changes in resource management, product sustainability and compliance, supply chain transparency, external reporting requirements, employee engagement, climate adaptation and sustainability goals and rewards. As these areas evolve, they are becoming the different elements of a business management strategy that is not only viable, but increasingly necessary.
EHS and sustainability managers report they must comply with more regulation at the state level, as states step into a vacuum created by gridlock at the federal level. There is also more regulation internationally, and EHS managers are forced to navigate a patchwork of sometimes conflicting rules. In the supply chain, sustainability is becoming a requirement as customers hold their suppliers to higher standards, train and audit them. Other outside influences driving sustainability are pressure from investors and other stakeholders, and the need to build and maintain brand reputation.
As EHS managers set up cross-functional teams to handle compliance issues or perform a product life cycle analysis, as they engage with the supply chain, train employees, provide data to stakeholders or embed sustainability goals into performance targets, as they think systemically to adapt their companies to climate change, all the while they are introducing five qualities that are transforming the way the corporate world works, according to the NAEM report. Here they are:
1. Integration: sustainability is cross-functional and requires reaching across silos within an organization.
2. Engagement: sustainability requires engaging with employees, investors, the community, government, customers and suppliers. This means listening and creating constructive dialogue.
3. Transparency: sustainability is all about honest disclosure, measuring, mitigating and communicating.
4. Collaboration: sustainability requires a holistic approach and systems thinking.
5. Resilience: planning and responding to environmental and economic risk makes companies responsive and adaptive.
Corporate sustainability is bringing improvements to the outside world in the environmental, social and governance arenas. But the side effect, introducing a more transparent and collaborative corporate culture, may be even more important.