Daily Archives: December 4, 2011

How Do You Embed Sustainability in Organizational Culture?

A recent article over on the ISM site in their eSide Supply Management publication on Embedding Sustainability: A 5-Step Approach, discussed a report by Simon Fraser University and the Network for Business Sustainability that recommended five tried-and-true strategies for making sustainability part of an organizational culture, where sustainability was defined as operating in ways that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In brief, the five informal practices that were recommended were:

  1. Engage
  2. Signal
  3. Communicate
  4. Manage Talent
  5. Reinforce

For each of these practices, they recommended that actions, which included:


  • Foster Competition
    between teams and business units
  • Make It Easy
    for employees to make choices that favour sustainability
  • Support Grassroots Efforts
    that come from the workforce
  • Capture Quick Wins
    and use them to overcome resistance
  • Prioritize Recognition
    and reward employees who foster commitment and get results


  • Be a Role Model
    and walk the walk (don’t just talk the talk)
  • Support
    your subordinates when they make decisions to prioritize sustainability
  • Allocate Resources
    to back up your sustainability commitment


  • Tell a Story
    that promotes sustainability behaviours through examples
  • Customize
    the message to be authentic and relevant for the organization

Manage Talent

  • Hire Appropriately
    and select individuals with a passion, attitude, and competence to deal with sustainability issues
  • Make Sustainability a Way of Life
    and make it part of the job descriptions, goals, and benefits review process


  • Inform and Repeat
    the message over and over and over

These are all good practices, but will they really embed sustainability? First of all, nothing takes hold in an organization if it does not support both the business goals and the individual goals of the people who need to carry it out. If the ultimate goal is to please Wall Street by increasing profitability by 10% by cutting costs 3%, then no effort will be approved unless costs are reduced. Furthermore, if most managers and decision makers are compensated through productivity increases, and the most effective way to increase productivity is the least sustainable option, guess what option is going to be picked?

As a result, unless the organizational goals have sustainability embedded in them, and unless those organizational goals are mapped to unit goals that have sustainability in them, and unless those unit goals are mapped to individual goals that have sustainability in them, the chances of sustainability truly taking hold for the long term are going to be low. Thus, the organizational culture must first be tuned to sustainability. However, as we all now, just creating the right environment isn’t enough. People need to change — and this requires creating an atmosphere that not only supports the change, but that will support the inevitable hiccups that will result when any process is changed. So a change management initiative will also be required. And then the people have to want to change to truly make a big change. And how do you make people want to change? Incentives and rewards often work well, but those are specific to the types of individuals in your organization. As a result, no roadmap or 5-step plan will work as is. And if you don’t have a set of leaders who want the change to happen, it could be difficult to figure out what you need to do and get it done. And therein lies the challenge. So while I applaud the effort summarized in the report, is it enough?