Updated: Apr 1
The most common mistake most businesses make in their strategic planning is not understanding how to implement operational practices to achieve sustainability goals. In fact, many businesses do not include sustainability initiatives in their strategies at all - an area that can be detrimental to long-term success.
“Leaders do not know how impacts connect because they do not know the definition of sustainability." - Karl-Henrik Robèrt
Without a clear idea, organizations cannot plan ahead and steadily make progress towards their goals. Additionally, should a business have a plan, it is necessary to have an understandable and unambiguous one. As with any fundamental principle of goal setting, creating an effective strategic plan begins with establishing a sustainable goal, prior to conducting a SWOT analysis and habitually evaluating one’s progress and priorities along the way. However, with the complexity and scale of sustainability, as well as a tendency of its definition to have several interpretations, businesses and leaders feel paralyzed when the time comes to address their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) responsibilities, and incorporate sustainability into their approach.
As such, understanding that sustainability issues including poverty, education, clean water, sustainable cities, land and aquatic life, climate change, and more are deeply connected with each other will help leaders organize their systems better. In the words of Karl-Henrik Robèrt, a cancer scientist and important figure in the sustainability movement, “leaders do not know how impacts connect because they do not know the definition of sustainability.” By looking at sustainability and its impacts in relation to each other, as opposed to one problem to ameliorate at a time, businesses will be better prepared to establish a framework that suits the universal principles of sustainability.
Adopting sustainable practices: Straightforward solutions for strategic business planning
1. Solidify your main purpose and core values - For a goal to be achieved and naturally foster a vigorous plan of action, businesses must determine their vision for becoming more sustainable. Because the rudimentary principle of sustainability is a globally shared objective to not destroy eco- and social- systems, leaders can, for example, refer to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a guide for learning how to complement them into their own business. Adopting a common vision into organizations allows business leaders and employees to optimally fraction the larger goal into smaller, relevant calls to action.
Making sure goals are relevant to your industry is also an ideal place to start. In logistics, this could be looking at how to lower carbon from transporting goods by transitioning to hybrid or electric vehicles or efficient routing. If working in the real estate industry, this can be reducing paper waste in the production of paper brochures and flyers, conducting virtual tours, reusing staging equipment or buying second-hand, and selling or donating furniture when it is time to update.
2. Assess your current standing - Ask yourselves, “Where are we in relation to our sustainable goal?” This analysis can be something new or complement an existing framework. Gaining a full and transparent understanding of the present situation will not only help influence significant business decisions but also promote cohesive, coordinated action. The key starting point to this assessment exercise is to keep your sustainability goal in mind and branch the initiative out into who you want to inform and what message you want to send. In reflecting upon the specific persons and decisions involved, prospective partnerships and collaborative work with stakeholders, suppliers, and perhaps competitors could be revealed to your strategic planning, thus bringing innovation into your operations.
Let’s use our earlier example of the real estate industry. If one of your agency’s goals is centred on sustainable urban planning, then perhaps you can develop a report to the Board of Directors that suggests constructing or investing in eco-neighbourhoods. In this situation, the who element is the board, and what suggests future business development opportunities regarding green urbanization and environmentally-friendly spaces.
3. Discuss and implement options - In reference to Karl-Henrik Robèrt’s Strategic Sustainable Development picture book, a suitable strategic plan for sustainable decision-making means that future measures must be:
Necessary (but not more to allow for non-prescriptive creativity)
Sufficient (so that the essential aspects of the goal remain at the forefront of all business decisions)
General (in order for the vision and actions to be understood across industries and various disciplines), and
Concrete (to have a tangible effect).
Later on, as the business grows and surroundings change while measures are tested, these options can be further refined along the way.
Take your sustainable strategic planning one step further
According to a global survey of board directors conducted by the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre and Heidrick & Struggles, 24% of boards reported that they spend no time at all on skills and training for climate-related issues. In addition, “85% of respondents said they believe that the level of overall climate knowledge on their boards needs to increase”. While these findings are specific to climate change, the results provide an urgent look into the fact that there is a lack of sustainability expertise and an ESG skills gap within corporations, therefore hindering the value they can offer in the long term.
By expanding our knowledge about sustainability through educating ourselves, learning from each other, and ensuring that we continue to prioritize our vision, we are better equipped to understand the strategic planning risks and opportunities that will direct today’s business decisions. As such, adding relevant voices to businesses, having open and honest discussions, and changing internal operations are some of the key factors to improving productivity towards a circular economy.
To learn more about the recommendations that you can integrate into your strategic planning, please visit the World Resources Institute’s Sustainability SWOT (sSWOT) guide, as well as INSEAD and Heidrick & Struggles’ global survey report, which explores what corporate leaders around the world are doing and should do.
Engaging employees in the decision-making process
To get employees involved in facilitating the business’ sustainability goals:
1. Communicate the company’s mission, vision, and core values - Meet with employees on a one-on-one basis to ensure that individuals' specific interests are met. Having a thorough and direct conversation with colleagues will maximize the time that is spent later as a group where you collectively discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Ongoing internal communication of sustainability messaging will help keep these priorities top of mind.
2. Sponsor volunteer days - Incorporating ways to get employees involved on the front end of change can build excitement and encourage ownership in taking environmental action. Presenting opportunities to experience first-hand, their contribution to the environment can be both a rewarding and purposeful practice that businesses can offer their people.
3. Establish an environmental committee - An organizational green task force can be implemented to empower members of the company to take an active role in facilitating change within the business. Not only does this give staff a voice in how the company operates, boosting morale, but can also strengthen overall employee job satisfaction.
4. Foster a learning environment - Encourage employees to take initiative in bringing eco-friendly ideas and concepts forward through a suggestions box, round table discussions or town hall meetings and have open conversations about the options brought forth.
Sharing information among peers presents opportunities to explore and learn from each other’s ideas, while simultaneously working towards a shared vision.
5. Incentivize by gifting green - Shift the perspective from rewarding employees towards recognizing employees. Acknowledging the efforts and contributions that employees make within and outside of the organization is a more impactful incentive, especially when the recognition aligns with the company’s transition to more sustainable values.
How can Good Earth Gifting help? We offer customized and tailor-made gifts that are thoughtfully chosen by you, and carefully packaged and sent by us - a collaborative effort that also supports local eco-friendly Canadian businesses. Meaningful recognition shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The whole point of employee appreciation is to show genuine effort through the small details. A little goes a long way!
If this article was helpful and you'd like to put these suggestions into practice in your workplace, we created the Sustainable Strategic Planning Workbook for you.
Browse our shop to see what we have in store for your corporate gifting needs. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram @goodearthgifting, and TikTok to share your ideas on adding sustainability to your workplace practices and strategic planning.