Sustainability Consulting Round-up: Best of Our Blog for August 2015

Each month, we highlight some of our more popular content on the SSC blog!

In case you missed them, here's a round-up of our most popular blog posts from this past month. These are the articles that received the most attention from our online audience. Check them out! 

  1. Puma, Adidas, Under Armour - Who Has the Best Sustainability Sustainability
  2. Companies with GREAT Sustainability Websites
  3. Using Sustainability to Avoid Risk
  4. 4 Mistakes That Are Holding Back Your Company's Sustainability
  5. 3 Skill Sets Every Consultant Should Have

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Should You Pare Down Your Sustainability Agenda?

Enjoy this blog from the SSC archives:

At the beginning of the year, a lot of people find themselves making long lists of things to achieve over the next 12 months. And ambitious sustainability agendas are no exception--it seems like we're always being pushed to do more, move faster, and achieve greater sustainability performance. After all -- we know that global challenges can't be solved by half-measures.

Today, we're challenging the idea that you must do "better" sustainability by doing "more" sustainability-related activities. Instead, let's look at the benefits of doing less. And we'll start by reviewing an article called The Art of Adding by Taking Away by Matthew E. May, published last January in The New York Times

May begins his article with a quote from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

This saying sparked something in May, who began to investigate the logic of problem solving by taking things away:

"It dawned on me that I’d been looking at my problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, I was able to complete the project successfully."

May finds that there are many ways to tie the "doing more by doing less" thinking into the business world:

  • By removing distractions, companies can focus on what really matters.
  • By searching for patterns and finding common elements, companies can spot opportunities earlier and streamline decision-making.
  • By removing product features, companies can drive innovation and reach new audiences.

So what does this mean for sustainability practitioners? 

Take a hard look at your company's sustainability activities -- are they clearly aligned and focused with your business strategy? Are they designed to mitigate your biggest environmental and social impacts? Are they responsive to your key stakeholders?

Or...are your company's sustainability activities spread too thin and flow in so many directions it is difficult to adequately keep track of them? If your sustainability agenda doesn't revolve around a clear strategy, it's time to get off the merry-go-round and do a little paring. Here's what we suggest:

  • Conduct a materiality assessment to identify and prioritize your (internal and external) stakeholders and what they care about. This will give you a short list of sustainability topics that are the most important, and a longer list of "nice to have" activities to tackle as time permits.
  • Assess each of your existing sustainability activities against a materiality matrix. If you find that activities are falling outside of the "must have" sustainability priorities, you should consider redirecting resources to more important places.
  • Develop guidelines to help you address the importance, effectiveness, and urgency of any new activities under consideration. This will keep you on the straight and narrow going forward.

If you'd like some help in conducting a materiality assessment, please contact us! We love to take clients through this process--it's enlightening, empowering, and energizing to identify what's important (and what you can leave behind).

In the meantime, we love May's final advice about how to apply this thinking to your own life:

"First, create a “not to do” list to accompany your to-do list. Give careful thought to prioritizing your goals, projects and tasks, then eliminate the bottom 20 percent of the list — forever."

"Second, ask those who matter to you most — clients, colleagues, family members and friends — what they would like you to stop doing. Warning: you may be surprised at just how long the list is."

"The lesson I’ve learned from my pursuit of less is powerful in its simplicity: when you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens."

Have you tried this approach? We'd love to hear what you're giving up in 2014, and what you're making more room to do! Leave us a comment or join the conversation on Twitter.

Using Sustainability to Avoid Risk

Enjoy this blog from the SSC archives:

The evidence that sustainability can be good for business is overwhelming. Most of the case studies, examples, and analysis that has been done show positive links between a sustainable approach to environmental and social issues, and corporate profits, Thus far, the research has been primarily focused on direct operational efficiencies (like retrofitting your office lighting to save money and reduce your carbon footprint), innovation (using biomimicry to drive new product development), and productivity (ie. more engaged employees take less sick leave).

However, there hasn't been as much talk about the nexus between sustainability and risk management. And for corporations operating in complex supply chains in a globally-connected economy -- well -- effective risk management can be the difference between success and failure. Below, we take a look at three articles that shed light on why companies still struggle to incorporate sustainability into their risk management practices (and vice versa).

Has sustainability become a risky business? 

This GreenBiz article by John Davies reviews a report by Ernst & Young. The key takeaway: While more companies are concerned about increased risk and the proximity of natural resource shortages, corporate risk response appears to be inadequate to address the scope and scale of some of these challenges. The free report looks at six corporate sustainability trends with a strong focus on the internal influencers of corporate performance (CEOs and boards), as well as external forces ranging from governments to shareholders and investors.

Playing It Safe Is Riskier than You Think 

This article by Bill Taylor in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that "difficult and uncertain times are often the best times for organizations to separate themselves from the pack, so long as their leaders are prepared not to stand pat." While not directly about sustainability, this article certainly supports the notion that economic turmoil is no reason not to be ambitious about tackling big sustainability challenges.

Research: Why Companies Keep Getting Blind-Sided by Risk 

by Mary Driscoll in the Harvard Business Review presents fascinating insight into why companies (and their executives) are not succeeding at identifying and mitigating risk. Survey findings indicate that most organizations’ leaders did indeed express concern about the impact of political turmoil, natural disasters, or extreme weather. But the findings also show that the people at the front lines of the business were hamstrung by a lack of visibility into risk. Nearly half said they lacked the resources needed to adequately assess business continuity programs at supplier sites. Many relied on the suppliers filling out perfunctory, unreliable checklists. There are some big lessons here for sustainability practitioners! 

Are simple mistakes holding back your sustainability? Find out how to correct those mistakes here!