If you are about to think about your company’s sustainability journey, and might not even have a budget yet then my suggestion is for you to focus on the things listed below.

Photo from Pexels by Antoni Shkraba

1. Bare minimum

Find out what sustainability regulations are relevant for your company and what you therefore must comply with. Each individual country have their country regulations and on top of that the EU has several regulations like e.g. the EU Taxonomy, CSRD, Due diligence directive and more. The bad news is that you will need to do this exercise on a regular basis to keep up-to-date on this. The good news is that you can rest at night knowing that you and your business are compliant with relevant directives and regulations. Apart from country regulations, there may also be industry-specific regulations you need to be aware of. The financial exposure is high and can ultimately cost your company a lot of money if you do not comply with the regulations in force, and you must be aware of the importance of complying.

2. Your Customers

More and more of the large corporations have started requesting detailed information from their suppliers and expect you as a company to be able to live up to certain standards and certifications in connection with sustainability. It is therefore a good idea to research your customers’ webpage (if B2B) to identify where they are on their sustainability journey. Have they for instance committed to certain certifications, or standards or focused on something specific? Often you can spot their maturity within sustainability when looking at the following criteria:

Governance: Where in the organization is the responsibility placed? If you cannot find anyone appointed as responsible then they are probably early in their sustainability journey.

Strategy: Is sustainability built into their strategy, as a natural part of what they are focusing on? Then it is a sign of seriousness, whereas no mention or a feeling that it is something they do in parallel to the strategy gives a sign of immaturity in their Sustainability strategy.

Risk and Opportunity Management: Look at their webpage for a description of, how they work with sustainability, what risks, impacts, and opportunities they foresee within this area.

Metrics and Targets: Have they set and published targets? Do they disclose numbers that are audited and approved by auditors on how it is going?

You may also proactively reach out to your B2B customers and ask if there are any upcoming requirements to their suppliers you should be aware of.

If your business is B2C then try to create a persona of your typical customers and research what is important for them. Eg by using the below Design Thinking Persona exercise.

3. Standards

If you identify any standards or certifications which your customers have committed to, then consider if they are relevant for you to investigate and/or commit to as well. There are several global reporting standards like Science Based Targets (also exist in a version for SME), GRI, SASB, and many more. Using a known reporting standard has the advantage that you can compare your numbers to similar companies reporting according to the same standard.

There is also a range of very known Certifications like B-Corp, Carbon Trust, Cradle to Cradle, Fairtrade, FSC, Green Key, MSC, PEFC, Rainforest Alliance and many more.

Cradle to Cradle and LCA’s are something you should expect will be required more and more to be in place for your products. Especially with the EU Product Environmental Footprint coming up.

FSC is something you should look into if you are working with wood and paper/pulp based products.

B-Corp is a good place to look if you want to have a holistic picture of your company and what needs to change. B-Corp companies also tend to trade with each other, so it might give you a competitive advantage. Future-Fit (for free) is another option if you want to evaluate your company as a whole.

It is a lot of work to achieve a certification and run regular reports according to a given standard, so choose carefully, how many things you initiate. It is healthy to go through the certification processes, and if your customers expect you to follow certain standards and certifications then it will pay off, as it keeps you in business.

4. Identify some tasks/projects that should be initiated to handle based on the findings in step 1-3

When you get an overview of what you need to comply with, report on, and certify to, then you will probably see some overlap on the data points you require, but also the initiatives needed within your business.

If you have brainstormed a bunch of ideas, initiatives, and projects, then try to prioritize it on a grid with value on the vertical line and effort/resources needed on the vertical line. Once you made the first prioritization, then consider for each of the ideas how much sustainability impact each of the ideas have, and then move them a bit up and down sustainability value-wise.

Create a roadmap where you include the no-brainer initiatives from the upper right corner, then go through the big bets in category two, if there are resources left then go through the category 3 ideas, whereas category 4 is out of scope for now. It might be tempting to go for low-hanging fruits to show fast results, but it is the big things that make a large difference, so make sure to prioritize your money and resources.

5. Management of Sustainability

Sustainability has to be an integrated, as a natural part of the company strategy and the whole organization. You will have a very hard time to succeed as a one-person army, so make sure to involve the right stakeholders in your business, both because they will be more motivated, but also take more responsibility for implementing the agreed actions in their respective areas.

It is important that you get a budget, and management support, so it does not end up, as a parallel track in the company that is down prioritized. The effort and changes needed must be part of the company’s core activities.

If you are appointed as responsible for sustainability then it is important that responsibility overall is with the CEO, so your colleagues know this got the attention from management. Your role is to facilitate the dialog, run the workshops, keep inspiring your colleagues, help each of those responsible for different tasks/projects with reaching their goals, and keep overall track of how it is going with the progress of the different projects. You can start by pointing your different CxO colleagues to this article about how different job roles can get started with sustainability. Self-management often motivates more than telling them what they should do.

6. Data

“You get what you measure” is an old saying. If you don’t know where you are today then you don’t know, how much work is needed to reach your goals. And if you don’t measure your sustainability initiatives and projects, you won’t know if you are making the right decisions.

While working for IBM, I met companies that ended up with nasty surprises, when they realized that their KPIs in the sustainability report had not improved year over year. Or the management team had committed specific goals that were completely unrealistic – often set by different consultancy companies that had estimated some sort of starting point without knowing the company fully or getting the right numbers from the beginning.

Your company holds much more data than you know. Set up a meeting with employees from the data-, IT- and relevant process departments. Sometimes the data are well hidden, might not be registered in the system you expected to find them in, or are not collected even though it would be possible to collect them.

7. Communication

Your communication department and management would probably like to communicate about your new ambitious sustainability plan and projects in pipeline. Being a responsible company with a green agenda is today a clear competitive parameter, both in terms of attracting employees, but also in competition with competitors. So you should communicate, but be honest and avoid greenwashing, pink washing, brown washing, SDG washing etc.

My suggestion is to start by writing sustainability into your strategy. Then communicate about what you want to achieve, and how and why you have decided to focus on exactly these areas. It might be tempting to ask the communication department or a communication bureau to write the communication, but be careful with overpolishing the story. It is much better to write a humble and honest story, where you as an example mention the biggest challenges you foresee on the sustainability journey.

Be aware of rules about how to communicate sustainability. In some countries, you need an LCA calculation in place to communicate, how green your product is. Same goes for data from your sustainability report that in some countries has to be audited and approved by external auditors etc.

Your communication department will probably also ask you about UN SDG and which ones your company will commit to. If you have a limited budget then start by looking at points 1-3 above, as those three points can end your business, if you dont have them in place. Not having thought about the UN SDG will not kill your business. What you might utilize the UN SDG for – if you have the budget and time – is as part of your strategy work, as they do work well as a sort of blueprint for inspiration in strategy work or involvement of employees in sustainability work.

How ambitious your company will want to be from the beginning differs a lot, and if they want to be at the forefront then the above is just a starting point. I would then as an extra step add a suggestion to work on re-designing for the sustainability of your strategy, products and processes. A new blog on “Designing for Sustainability”  is on the way.

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