What Does It Take to Successfully Implement Corporate Sustainability?
By Saskia Juretzek
Sustainable development is becoming more and more an integral part of our daily life, and more companies are willing to incorporate sustainability into their daily business. Yet many businesses are still lacking when it comes to implementing sustainability.
Why is this?
We decided to take a look at this in a study at Leuphana University Lüneburg. For the study, we surveyed 82 sustainability managers and consultants in Germany.
We found that one of the main barriers to implementing sustainability is the dilemmas that come up. Because of the complex nature of sustainability, dilemmas occur regularly. In fact, they are the rule rather than the exception. In a dilemma situation, the goals are conflicting and cannot be reached simultaneously. For example, the goal of higher social or ecological supply-chain standards might collide with the goal of low production costs (efficiency), or the goal of low-priced sourcing might clash with long-term and / or local sourcing aims.
So decision makers face various dilemmas when trying to implement corporate sustainability. Given that people feel uncomfortable when confronted with conflicts, they often ignore those dilemmas.
How to solve this?
One way to solve this problem is to ensure that decision makers in a company have the right competencies. That’s because the decision makers’ competencies play a crucial role in identifying, accepting, and coping with sustainability dilemmas – and therefore in successfully implementing sustainability strategies.
Our study aimed to identify which competencies decision makers need to solve these dilemmas. We found that these qualities are key for a successful corporate sustainability (CS) program:
- Persistence and patience (in particular, actively pursuing goals on a long-term basis despite any barriers or resistances)
- Credibility (especially based on competences and authenticity)
- Ability to communicate (in particular, eloquence and openness)
- Systemic / holistic thinking
- Interdisciplinary CS expertise / comprehension of complexity
- Conflict management / ability to agree on compromises (in particular, recognizing and managing conflicting interests and dilemmas)
- Relationship management (especially involvement of and mediation between different stakeholder groups to cooperate)
- Entrepreneurial / strategic thinking
- Capacity for innovation / openness to change
- Will to create and shape (despite conflicting goals and information)
Companies that are truly seeking to implement sustainability strategically should do even more. They should also set the right implementation conditions. These include authentic board support (active board / committee), a clearly defined CS strategy, targets, and priorities, as well as an integrated CS strategy.
Based on our study, the main recommendations for companies trying to implement corporate sustainability are:
- Raise awareness of the dilemmas that come up within companies, especially among CS managers and decision makers.
- Train CS managers on dilemma coping options and make trade-offs a possible way to go for managers.
- Actively identify and monitor dilemmas.
- Systematically train the managers involved in sustainability decisions.
- Provide the necessary favorable conditions within the company (for example, board support).
- Reflect possible target conflicts when setting goals – for example, using a Sustainability Balanced Scorecard (SBSC), which supports the implementation of strategic goals by pointing out the strategic relevance of the single sustainability topic and by showing how all goals are linked up.
Following these recommendations should help companies to implement sustainability strategies more effectively.
Saskia Juretzek is an expert in corporate sustainability management. For her PhD, she empirically researched how to successfully implement sustainability strategies and the required decision makers’ competences. She also holds a diploma in International Business Administration. As a Management Consultant with Accenture, she developed a focus on marketing, communications, and sustainability, working on projects in the US, UK, Italy, and Germany within the automotive, industrial equipment, and banking industries. In 2011 she joined Telefónica Germany as a Sustainability Manager, where she set up a new sustainability strategy and initiated the integration of CS targets into the leadership’s objectives. She also specialized in sustainability reporting and communication. Saskia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org orwww.saskiajuretzek.com.