When it comes to adopting sustainability practices, companies often get stuck before even getting started, given the difficulty of defining what sustainability even means . “There is a crippling vagueness about what sustainability means,” said Geoffrey Jones, a business history professor at University and the author of “Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship.” It encompasses such a broad range of issues, both environmental (e.g. emissions, deforestation, soil erosion) and social (e.g. labor and working conditions, health and safety, land acquisition). Without a clear definition of the meaning of sustainability within an organization, it is difficult to implement and measure sustainable practices.

At the same time, there is no question that corporate social responsibility and sustainability practices are essential to the long-term success of a company. In recent years, more and more organizations have recognized that their key performance indicators should lie not just in their profitability and scalability, but in sustainability as well. Not only does a focus on sustainability benefit the environmental and social future of the planet, it also creates stronger organizations. When compared with competitors, companies that include corporate sustainability as a core business practice enjoy improved employee retention, increased operational efficiency, reduced costs, promotional and new market opportunities, and improved relationships with key stakeholders. 

To address the lack of available practical guidance on how to define and integrate sustainability within an organization, we’ve developed The Sustainability Toolkit approach, including 4 core Sustainability Criteria within a management system framework. The development of these Criteria was guided by our experience with manufacturing clients who were spending a great deal of time, money, and energy on monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) for corporate sustainability without understanding why each was important or which stakeholders were interested in the data. We began conducting research to confirm our experience with these clients and to determine how sustainability is defined across a number of sectors, leading to the 4 Criteria. Our approach was first used in 2014 by Bruce Power when they released their first Sustainability Report, using our 4 Sustainability Criteria to organize each section of its report. Bruce Power confirmed that The Sustainability Toolkit and its 4 Criteria made sustainability planning much easier and more efficient, and helped them advance dialogue with key stakeholders.

The 4 Sustainability Criteria (EnvironmentOperating PracticesProducts and Services, and Community) are the high-level categories that are applicable to all organizations when developing a sustainability strategy. These Criteria are then broken down into Metrics, which are customized to each sector, as the definition of sustainability is unique to each organization. Breaking down the Criteria into Metrics is what defines sustainability specific to each location, business, and overall organization. For example, from an Environmental perspective, a manufacturer may have air emissions to manage, whereas a service-based organization will not. In addition, it is recommended that each company or organization use its own terminology to describe the 4 Sustainability Criteria and associated Metrics to minimize change within the organization and increase buy-in from employees.

It is estimated that Forbes Global companies spend $20 billion annually on corporate sustainability practices. So, it is costly, to say the least, when an organization’s definition of sustainability is unclear. Moreover, sustainability cannot be defined in the same way across sectors.

While sustainability has historically been difficult for many organizations to define, using the 4 Sustainability Criteria and subdividing these into sector-specific Metrics can make this process much easier. This approach provides an opportunity for organizations to save time and money, facilitating focus on what is relevant to them and their stakeholders.

We have a FREE Sustainability Strategy Simplified document that defines the Sustainability Criteria, Metrics and how to manage them in an efficient way. Get yor copy today and get started on defining and managing sustainability efficiently.

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