What is a culture of sustainability?
During the past years, sustainability became much more than just a buzz word for organisations. Regardless of the industry they operate in, businesses became more aware of the fact that focusing on sustainability is not only an opportunity to advance the world’s ESG agenda, but it is also an important source of sustainable competitive advantage and stakeholder management. Therefore, many organisations strive to build a culture of sustainability and engage their employees in their process of sustainable growth.
A company’s culture is shaped by all its employees. It is a complex and subtle matter. Organisational culture can be glimpsed in the company’s mission and values, but it is much more than that. It lies in the way employees interact with one another and with the top management, in how they go about their daily activities, and in the fine print of the ‘this is how we do things here’ statements (or, more formally put, the shared basic assumptions).
So where does an organisation start to cultivate a culture of sustainability?
Building a culture of sustainability
Developing a culture of sustainability generally begins by having a clear sustainable strategy and making sure sustainability is a key focus in everything the organisation does and stands for. On top of that, it is critical that all employees understand what sustainability is and its synergies with the company’s activity and their work.
1. Sustainability and the organisation’s strategic management process
According to Galpin et al. (2015), establishing a culture of sustainability at all the organisational levels starts by involving sustainability in the organisation’s strategic management process. This means that sustainability should permeate a company’s mission statement, value systems, goal setting, and strategy. It will then continue to influence the HR approaches of the organisation, such as recruitment, promotion, and training.
Needless to say, this process cannot happen overnight. It requires a solid understanding of the organisation’s impact and potential for sustainable growth, as well as reliable data that set the base of SMART goals and sustainable strategy.
Here is where the good old KPIs play a central role. As managers and employees deal with many competing priorities, KPIs help them understand how to prioritise their time, efforts, and resources.
KPIs are solid drivers of change. Therefore, it is imperative to introduce KPIs that will support the employees in advancing the organisation’s sustainability strategy.
The organisation ought to be moving forward as a whole. Thus, all employees must be up to date with these changes in the strategic management process. However, it is imperative that employees also have the means to understand their organisation’s new mission, values, goals, and strategy. For this, knowledge building is essential, which takes us to the next point.
2. All employees should gain common ground on sustainability
Employees are at the core of an organisation’s culture. Thus, it is crucial they understand what sustainability is and how it comes into play in their everyday work. Moreover, sustainability is a journey. To start grasping the complexity of sustainability, employees should also be aware of the impact of their habits, both at work and at home.
By acquiring a clear understanding of sustainability concepts, employees are offered the means to align personal and organisational values. Thus, employees gain self-confidence through a better grasp of sustainability, motivating them to discuss and act on sustainability. This will create the foundation for a strong culture of sustainability. Moreover, it will empower employees to achieve positive change on personal and professional levels.
The company can further advance its sustainability culture by making sure their rewarding system also revolves around sustainability. Thus, matters like compensation, benefits, recognition, and appreciation must be incentivised by sustainability. This sends a clear message to employees that sustainability is a priority and sustainable progress is valued as part of the organisation’s culture.
Lastly, building a culture of sustainability also stimulates talent retention. Research showed that morale was 55% higher in organisations with solid sustainability programs and employee loyalty was 38% better.
3. Engage employees to express sustainability in what they do
An organisation is a team, albeit one formed by thousands of people scattered all over the Globe in many cases. Therefore, employees must be inspired and supported to think sustainably about their work and how sustainable practices can be implemented in their teams and departments.
Furthermore, they are the ones that understand at first hand the prospects, limitations, and needs of their activities. That is why employees should be encouraged to think critically about their work and brainstorm ideas that would advance sustainability in their divisions. For this, the organisation should openly foster a safe space for employees to express their thoughts and promote sustainable thinking. Moreover, the organisation should provide a structure for inducing change through support from managers and colleagues. This shows that sustainability is one of the core values and that the organisation nurtures sustainable initiatives and mindsets.
4. Explore decision-making and creative problem-solving
When striving towards a culture of sustainability, it is important to understand the complexity of decision-making and how personal biases can influence it. Complex decision-making involves navigating trade-offs and dilemmas and is always influenced by previous experience and beliefs.
Decision-makers should identify challenges and opportunities to take action and create a positive impact. Moreover, including a range of different stakeholders in determining challenges and identifying potential opportunities maximises the potential for change across stakeholders.
5. Lead by example
Managers are the ones that can advance a culture of sustainability most efficiently. As employees look up to their leaders, managers should demonstrate that the organisation’s sustainable mission and values are not just empty words meant for branding, but the core of its activities. This can come in the form of sustainable initiatives, drawing attention to sustainable achievements, and actively portraying sustainability as a main personal and organisational focus.
Repetition is key in learning and creating new habits. That is why sustainability should become part of the narrative in every interaction between management and employees, from senior board meetings to sub-departments Friday breakfasts. To take it a step further, senior managers should always mention sustainability during speeches and discussions. This slowly embeds the concept of sustainability in employees’ minds and centres sustainability in the organisation’s culture.
Moreover, managers need to check in with their team members and ensure they are taking the necessary steps to advance the company’s sustainable strategy. In other words, clear KPIs are needed to make sure the sustainability agenda is moving forward and that everybody is playing their valuable part in fostering a culture of sustainability.
“Reticence won’t get employees on board and dedicated to sustainability. You’ve got to go for it in order to show employees that you mean business. Take on sustainability efforts, even when they seem big and scary. It’s necessary to make employees feel responsible and empowered. They need to believe that they can truly make a difference.” (“How to Create a Culture of Sustainability”, Thomas Insights)
6. Commitments and KPIs
Improving the overall KPIs of the company unifies efforts and supports the strategic achievement of targets. Through clear KPIs, employees have a better understanding of how they can contribute with their work. This adds clear structure and purpose to their daily work. Therefore, long-term sustainability actions should be facilitated through commitments and goals that are monitored through sustainability KPIs.
By being helped to break down sustainable habits into achievable small milestones, employees get an increased feeling of progress, leading to a greater motivation to continue the sustainable growth process. Employees must be provided with help on this journey so they do not feel overwhelmed by the changes. A sustainable company should create a supportive environment in which sustainability is a priority.
Building a sustainability culture means integrating sustainability into everyday decisions, overall company purpose, and strategies, and making sustainability part of daily activities. Moreover, a sustainable organisation should encourage a culture that rewards initiatives, action, and commitments to sustainability.
Building a culture of sustainability is a process. It involves a collective effort and a clear sustainability strategy. However, the efforts are worth the trouble. Building around sustainability provides a clear competitive advantage and a step ahead of industry trends and challenges.
It is important to stress that every employee should contribute to achieving sustainable development, with some employees playing a more central role than others. These change agents need to be carefully identified and supported, while the rest of the employees should be provided with general sustainability awareness and education.
Fostering a culture of sustainability ensures employees are feeling a greater sense of purpose and more eagerness and dedication to growing with the business. Moreover, employees will not feel separated from the purpose of the organisation when their values reinforce each other.
Sustainability must become a day-to-day focus of all employees, no matter their title. It needs to become the norm in the organisation and be embedded in people’s way of seeing work and, even more, the world.
“There is no right or wrong, there’s just too little” – Gabriela Negru, 2030 Builders CEO