Sustainability is a journey. On the road, you'll need to consistently deploy two important actions: measuring and engaging.
You'll need to measure, because sustainability is a continuous SWOT analysis; you need to be aware of your company's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats so that you know where you're coming from and where you're going. Sustainability is about measuring where you are today, setting goals about how sustainable your company will be in the future, working backward to define how to get there, and then measuring progress along the way. The more specific and quantitative you are, the greater your chances of effectiveness.
Normally, goals will fall into three categories: environmental, social and governance. Environmental goals can include CO2 emissions reductions, energy efficiency targets, environmentally friendly product development, use of biodegradable packaging, involvement in a biodiversity project, reduced water usage, recycling, and many more. Social goals can range from goals regarding the welfare of your employees to community projects to helping alleviate hunger in developing countries. And governance goals might include setting up an ethics committee for your company, or having a diverse board of directors.
Once you know where you are and what you want to achieve in the future, you need to follow an action plan, and your success will depend on your ability to engage with stakeholders inside and outside the company. Engagement with them will be the key to acceptance and implementation of your sustainability plans, as well as outside recognition of your company as a sustainable one. Some of the stakeholders you may want to interact with are employees, customers, suppliers, investors, the local community, local government, environmental or human rights groups, and competitors.
Competitors? Indeed. There are now many stories of industry collaboration in order to effect change, particularly in raw materials purchasing and in recycling of end-of-life products. The cocoa industry has banded together to insist on certifiable sustainable practices among cocoa farmers, and the electronics industry is working on getting the minerals they need from mines certified as respectful of human rights (and not controlled by violent warlords).
Suppliers can be engaged through insisting on sustainable practices in purchasing agreements, and through training and audits. Customers can be engaged in all kinds of creative ways that marketing departments like to dream up. The local community can be engaged through charity donations and volunteering projects and partnerships.
Employees are the most important piece of the puzzle. Without employee involvement in sustainability, big plans may go nowhere and promises remain shallow. Employees need to be engaged in a way that convinces them to understand and believe in what the company is trying to achieve, and participate. It is not just about getting employees to volunteer to plant trees or serve meals at the community soup kitchen. Employees need to understand the broad strategy, the company's goals, and the specific action plan. They need to be asked for ideas and listened to. They need to see sustainability on the ground (recycling bins, a strategy on coffee cups, health and safety compliance) in order to believe you really mean it. They need to get excited about sustainable packaging and sustainable product development, and feel they are part of a team. Probably the easiest way to make all this happen is to involve people cross-functionally in committees.
Now that you have engaged everyone, don't forget to keep measuring your progress and results, and communicating these back to your stakeholders. Once they see the improvement, they will be more interested in getting on board. If the improvement really looks good, it will enhance your company's reputation in a meaningful way. This will attract customers, and make your employees proud and productive. And the journey continues.