Executives often say they want to do more about sustainability and climate change, but that it seems impossible. On a personal level, it can feel that way for us all because climate action requires the most complex (and intriguing) of behavioral challenges: to become more proactive; prevent undesired futures; and create better futures.
Truly, one person or organization can’t stop climate change, but each can make a significant impact. The realistic goal is not to prevent climate change, but to make progress. Business, which makes the world go ’round, surely can slow down the climate train that already has left the station. And organizations and the people in them also can change direction onto a better path to a stronger, sustainable future.
Sustainability has reached a level of strategic imperative. The needed discourse is no longer about whether to incorporate sustainability into strategy and operations, or even how to do it — but how to do it better. One solution, begging for more widespread application, is to develop a strong culture of sustainability.
What is a sustainability culture, really?
An organization’s culture is the set of important assumptions that its members share about its goals, values and beliefs, which in turn influence their behavior. Beliefs can be about personal topics such as how you get ahead and what gets you fired; they also can be as broad as how the world works. For example, a top management team might deny, ignore or fear global warming; consider climate change to be relevant now or only to future generations; or believe that the climate affects the company not at all or in myriad vital ways.
Renowned MIT management professor Edgar Schein maintains that the only thing that distinguishes leadership from management is that leaders create and manage the organization’s culture. A leader defines a culture by embodying values and fostering norms, and then turns them into shared rules for behavior.
Your sustainability culture can be strong or weak. A strong one exists if people share a belief in sustainability’s importance and behave in ways that support it — including making decisions that balance long-term considerations with short-term needs. People see it as a priority rather than a pipe dream and don’t often throw it by the wayside in favor of other objectives.
A culture is not determined strictly by what top management says it is, but by what the organization’s members perceive. People see what management does and interpret their actions; they read signals sent by the design of performance management systems, the criteria used (and not used) to reward and discipline people, the topics that regularly drive conversations, the stories people tell and rituals and ceremonies that convey messages about what is most valued.
Ideally, the company itself embeds within a broader ecology of other organizations that support and model sustainability actions, such as sustainability coalitions, customers, suppliers, communities and public commitments such as signing onto the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project). This provides external monitoring and feedback that add extra layers of accountability that can strengthen the sustainability culture.
A strong sustainability culture exists when people…
- Understand the sustainability imperative
Environmentalism is vital but doesn’t resonate with everybody. Fact is, most everyone has serious reasons to care about sustainability. Climate change affects everything from water and food to human migration and war, and from economies and supply chains to customer and investor pressures.
Emotionally, a sustainability culture engenders both immediate concern and hope for the future. Rationally, it clarifies the rational business logic for caring and acting. Climate change is not just a green thing; it is about profit and loss, problem and opportunity, business and morality, a benefit to ourselves and the world.
Shortly before Christmas, 196 governments (not including the United States) agreed in Poland on a legal rulebook for implementing the goals agreed to earlier in Paris. Global conferences usually get mixed reviews, but here is an important bottom line: The world knows that climate change no longer occupies only a distant future or confined geography, but is anchored firmly in the here and now.
Another development in the Poland summit: the United States stepped back, and China moved into a leadership role. Tha has the international politics and power angle: Can the United States continue to cede climate leadership to China and other global competitors?
- Establish and follow a sustainability vision
It is time for a game-changing swing into serious action. Most businesses need to strengthen their sustainability actions and redo their plans.
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