Just as with any journey, a sustainability journey requires understanding some keys to success.
Many organizations are struggling to build sustainability programs and implement more environmentally friendly practices. Furthermore, some companies have exaggerated their sustainability records, a practice known as greenwashing.
"Sustainability maturity ranges quite a bit," said Michelle Benavides, executive director of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, a professional association of sustainability practitioners. "There are leaders who have been working on this for a long time. But many others are in the early stages of setting commitments and trying to figure out how to hit those commitments."
More companies are starting on their journey toward environmental sustainability as top leadership prioritizes the issue.
Environmental sustainability ranked as the number eighth strategic issues for CEOs heading into 2023, according to the "2022 Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey."
In addition, consumers have become more interested in the environmental records of those they buy from and engage with. Employees are seeking more action from their employers on this front. Many governments around the world have added environmental regulations and reporting requirements.
Organizations looking to meet those demands can consider 10 actions to help enable sustainability success.
1. Understand the environmental impact
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to limit further global warming is at the core of ensuring a livable world, and business leaders can have major impact.
Working to understand the direct and indirect carbon footprint is key, both in terms of direct and indirect emissions.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a widely used classification system for emissions reporting, has laid out three scopes of direct and indirect emissions:
- Scope 1 includes direct greenhouse emissions.
- Scope 2 includes indirect greenhouse gas emissions from energy a company purchases.
- Scope 3 includes a wide range of indirect greenhouse emissions across the value chain, from sourcing through disposal.
Carbon emissions are not the only environmental impact a company has. Leaders should also understand their effect in other areas, from the physical waste they produce to their organization's use of natural resources, and how their company's actions affect water, air and land quality.
Moreover, sustainability includes environmental impacts besides climate change as well as broader social and business issues.
"The sustainability journey is so much more than taking emissions out of the business," said Vinay Shandal, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.
2. Create a sustainability roadmap
Once company leaders understand how and where the organization affects the environment, they can start to analyze and measure those impacts as well as benchmark themselves against other organizations -- determining if they're laggards or leaders in sustainability work.
That information helps each organization create a strategy for improving their sustainability, Benavides said. "It's always critical to understand your baseline so you understand where you can go and can break down how to get there."
Executives can start with areas that they can directly control -- such as creating more energy efficient buildings and operations -- and then focus on how to improve sustainability in other areas such as their supply chains, Benavides said.
Looking to the biggest potential wins can also be fruitful.
Executives should identify areas where changes could yield the biggest improvements in sustainability and prioritize those, Shandal said.
3. Go after easy sustainability wins
Some organizations have yet to implement the fundamentals of an environmental sustainability journey. In these cases, leaders can look to what can be achieved with little effort, Benavides said.
Those basic greening strategies include the following:
- Lower energy consumption by powering down lights, devices and other electronics when not in use.
- Install smart fixtures that automatically shut off and energy-efficient equipment, such as LED lighting.
- Create sustainability awareness programs that encourage a reduce-reuse-recycle mentality in the workplace and support it through corporate actions by, for example, replacing bottled water vending machines with water dispensers designed to fill reusable water bottles.
- Digitalizing business processes to reduce environmental impacts such as paper waste, excess business travel and commutes to the office.
- Switching to renewable energy sources, where possible.
4. Empower workers
Lowering the organization's environmental impact requires increasing employee engagement on sustainability.
Executives should aim to encourage, empower and train their teams to do their part, Benavides said.
"This truly is a mission and commitment that everyone has to get involved in, so build foundational knowledge across the entirety of your staff," she said. "You want to make sure staff across the board can deeply understand the commitments being made by the sustainability managers, why it's so critical, how they fit into the puzzle and how they can act to meet those goals."
"Make sure everyone is equipped and then go forward from there with a solid action plan."
5. Get top-level buy-in
As with any important initiative, support from the top is key.
Creating a more sustainable organization requires support from senior leaders and the board, Benavides said. To build sustainability into the fabric of the company, top-level buy-in is necessary. When that buy-in is absent, the results are unlikely to be successful.
"[Sustainability] becomes a more siloed effort and it becomes harder to reach any sustainability commitments the company might have set," she said.
6. Bring sustainability to the supply chain
Most organizations are part of complex networks. This means business and IT leaders need to consider the sustainability of their supply chain, their suppliers and their business partners. The criteria for evaluating these varies by industry as well as by each organization's own objectives.
Many organizations consider the carbon footprints of those with whom they do business, said Abhijit Sunil, an analyst at Forrester Research whose research focuses on environmental reporting and sustainability strategies.
As part of that carbon footprint evaluation and as part of other sustainability considerations, organizations also may consider what materials their suppliers use, how they source those materials, how they produce their materials or products, and how they ship their products, he said.
Some organizations also consider their suppliers' product designs and packaging and whether materials and products can be repaired, recycled or reused. These are key principles for reducing environmental impacts and cutting back on waste and encouraging a more environmentally friendly circular economy.
7. Measure and track
A slew of companies, nonprofit entities and government agencies have been announcing their plans to become carbon-neutral and less environmentally impactful. But many may lack the ability to measure their existing environmental impact, track progress toward their stated goals and accurately report their sustainability metrics.
Vinay ShandalManaging director and senior partner, Boston Consulting Group
To address that, sustainability chiefs should work with their executive colleagues to create processes for quantifying their environmental impacts and tracking their improvements in those areas, Sunil said. Organizations also should create KPIs based on the objectives they have for their sustainability programs.
CIOs can play a leading role by helping select software for capturing, quantifying, analyzing and reporting sustainability-related metrics. For example, governance, risk and compliance software as well as environmental health and safety management software often have modules for carbon accounting, Sunil said.
CIOs could bring other technologies to bear here too, Sunil said. IoT, for example, can help companies track and analyze information and provide more visibility into their environmental impact.
8. Understand how technology impacts the environment
CIOs are key players in sustainability success, even beyond helping to select tracking and reporting software.
They should be evaluating their own department's environmental impact as well as how and where they can bring improvements, Sunil said.
IT equipment consumes significant amounts of energy, with some technologies -- such as generative AI -- requiring more power than other types of digital solutions.
Data centers -- whether on premise or with cloud providers -- use not only large amounts of power but also use significant amounts of water for cooling and often require large tracks of land.
However, CIOs can opt to consider their technology suppliers' sustainability records along with performance criteria when selecting vendors, Sunil said. They can also work with hardware providers to ensure they have solid take-back programs so end-of-life devices can be reused or recycled. They can promote the use of software designed for sustainability.
In the near future, CIOs may have no choice but to become more sustainability minded.
Seventy percent of leaders in the area of technology sourcing, procuring and vendor management will have performance objectives for their functions that focus on environmental sustainability, according to Gartner's "Predicts 2023: Environmental Sustainability Is Now an IT Sourcing Imperative."
9. Take a holistic approach
Enterprise executives should remember that environmental sustainability is one part of environmental, social and governance ESG efforts. They should consider their sustainability initiatives through the environmental lens as well as the social and governance lenses.
Leaders should think end to end, Shandal said. For example, electric vehicle makers should be considering how and where the materials to create the batteries are sourced; how they're handled at end-of-life; the environmental and social impact of that work; and how all those pieces will be monitored and governed according to the policies, standards and objectives established by the vehicle maker.
10. Look for opportunities in a sustainability-focused economy
Going on a sustainability journey can unlock new sources of revenue.
Companies should identify what opportunities they may have as they and others increasingly embrace sustainable practices, Shandal said.
For example, as companies turn away from using chemicals that harm the environment, they'll be looking for environmentally friendly alternatives -- a shift that opens up a market opportunity for those ready to meet the changing market demands, Shandal said.
"Think about where value is shifting and, 'How do I position my business to play and win in this new economy?'" he said.