Corporate Sustainability is a Team Sport

When something is described as a “team sport” it means that success can only be achieved when everyone on the team works together, and toward the same goal.
How can this principle apply to corporate sustainability? The latest results of our 8th annual BSR/GlobeScan “State of Sustainable Business Survey” drive home the fact that, for companies to make greater progress in sustainability, all the players on the team (and the coach) need to work together much more effectively. The 2016 results clearly highlight the need for greater internal integration and engagement.

How well do companies think they are doing in integrating sustainability into the business?

Our latest survey includes responses from nearly 300 business leaders from 152 global companies, and among those global companies two-thirds (66%) say that sustainability is at least fairly well integrated into the core of their business (13% believe it is extremely well integrated). It is both encouraging and impressive, that such a proportion of companies consider sustainability an important part of the business, rather than simply an add on. However, this is only part of the story.
When asked about the ways that sustainability is integrated, more than seven in ten (72%) corporate sustainability professionals say that it is aligned and integrated with the company’s corporate purpose – again, an impressive finding. However, fewer professionals (51%) believe that sustainability is integrated into strategic planning. This is ultimately where sustainability integration is most needed, as this is when sustainability becomes designed into business success.
Sustainability Integration Strategies

How can sustainability become more integrated into central strategic planning?

One way is for the CEO to prioritize it. Encouragingly, our survey shows that this seems to be an increasing phenomenon. In 2016, almost half (49%) of corporate sustainability professionals say that sustainability is at least a top five priority for their CEO (up 12 points from 2015). Impressive stuff and perhaps a testament to the higher profile afforded to sustainability by the Paris Climate Summit (COP21) and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Ultimately, though, its takes more than the team coach. It takes the entire team. As in past years, we find the sustainability function in many companies is still struggling to engage with a number of their counterparts across the enterprise. Although a majority of corporate professionals report high levels of engagement with Supply Chain/Procurement, Corporate Communications, Public Affairs and the CEOs Office, there is significantly lower levels of engagement with other core functions such as Investor Relations, Human Resources, R&D, Strategic Planning, and Finance.
Perceptions of Functions' Engagement with Sustainability
When asked to identify the biggest barrier to internal engagement and collaboration between their teams and other functions, corporate sustainability professionals cited “competing internal priorities” far more than any other barrier (51%).
The challenge, therefore, is to move beyond these competing internal priorities to a place where all functions are aligned around a shared understanding of the strategic importance of sustainability. This, we suggest, will require the following:

  • Strategy development: fostering internal alignment and prioritization through internal engagement and best practice review. This can empower all functions to align around a shared sustainability vision, goals and platform. From our experience, this is critical to foster deeper engagement and alignment with overall business strategy.
  • Governance: clarifying internal roles, responsibilities and developing accountability mechanisms. The sustainability team often cannot own the entire sustainability agenda, but helping other functions understand the role they can and need to play will present greater opportunities to deliver value to the company.
  • Activation, socialization and training: working function by function to integrate enterprise-wide priorities, purpose, risk management and ensure skills and capacity exist. This will drive greater internal engagement, alignment, education and collaboration.
  • Measurement: benchmark and track understanding, expectations, awareness, and impacts to the business, both internally and externally. It is important for each function to clearly identify their stakeholders in order to understand how sustainability fits into their relationship. This will help quantify and measure progress, ROI and, provide insights to adjust strategy.

None of this is easy and it all takes time. But, it is essential. Sustainability teams need their colleagues in other functions to help them to understand their objectives and needs, and to identify how sustainability can support those ends. Equally, sustainability teams need to arm themselves with the data and best practice knowledge, to prove to their colleagues in other functions that sustainability is an essential element of their work.
But it is essential that it is a two way dialogue. Only by engaging with and understanding the challenges that functions face can the sustainability team, and the business as a whole, ensure that the way in which sustainability can be integrated ultimately delivers value and not simply extra obstacles.
This is how teams win.

Read the 2016 State of Sustainable Business Survey