Leave the plastic cups for now

By: Arent van 't Spijker

In a recent study, Gartner Research Institute states that by 2024 60% of all demand for sustainability consulting services will come directly from the business lines of corporates, rather than from the organization’s sustainability department. That is good news. Very good news.

Duurzaamheid, Organisatorische Transformatie, Bedrijfscultuur, Milieu-impact, Sociale Kwesties, Procesverandering, Gedragsaanpassing, Bedrijfswaarden, Besluitvorming, Operationele Efficiëntie

Since a few years, the driving forces for investments in large organizations to sustainability are shifting away from ‘a genuine intent to do better’ on one end of the spectrum to ‘greenwashing’ on the other. The ‘intent’ of investing in sustainability is making way for ‘impact’ of sustainability. Impact on the two key business drivers of this decade. The first is the license to operate (now or in the near future) in specific markets, provided by a combination of legal guardrails, tax measures, access to raw materials, supply chain pressure and customer demand. The second is the access to talent; an ever-increasing pool of potential employees is questioning whether it wants to work for organizations that do not comply to perceived environmental and/or social thresholds. In short, organizations will need to stop ‘doing sustainability’ and start ‘being sustainable’.

The Gartner prediction, if true, means that within the next 2 years or so, sustainability goals in corporations will have become a significant business objective for operational line managers. Such goals could include environmental objectives, such as the reduction of CO2 emissions, or social objectives, such as a rebalancing of diversity and inclusion in the workforce. These objectives will have been set alongside their existing business targets. After all, corporates are not known for their willingness to incur direct impact on their operational result. Investments in sustainability are made at the expense of profit not at the expense of operating margin. Therefore, line managers will have an incentive to direct their efforts in the best way to prevent ‘sustainability cost’ from recurring next year. The quickest way to achieve that is to incorporate sustainability into the business as usual. There is a ‘but’, however. Changing the ‘business as usual’ means going against the very thing that the company has been trying to achieve for decades: optimization of the core process. Every activity that deviates from this optimal will cause friction and frustration. The key issue therefore is not to place the sustainability efforts instead of, on top of, or alongside the going concern. The issue is to transform the process in such a way that sustainability becomes an integral part of it.

Making ‘things an integral part’ of the business as usual extends beyond replacing one with the other. It extends beyond replacing non-sustainable raw materials with sustainable ones, beyond redesigning the production process to eliminate waste, beyond collaboration in the supply chain to eliminate emissions (environmental) or inequality (social). It extends into the ‘this is how we do things around here’. Into the corporate culture and values. Into the operating procedures, decision making processes and, most important, in the default response of the people in the organization to unexpected situations. The interesting thing, at least in my opinion, is that the ‘this is how we do things’-force is actually more powerful than the convictions of individual employees that sustainability is a priority. It is the force that drives all employees, whether they care about environmental or social issues or not. It is the force that creates routine. That force is more powerful than any convincing message, argument or management directive.

Making sustainability an integral part of the business as usual will help line managers to achieve their sustainability objectives. Perhaps not in the fastest way, but certainly in the way that has the lowest overall cost in effort and expenses to achieve the license to operate and the attractiveness to talent. It takes a long time because it takes time to transform people’s behavior. Change a process and people will need to adapt. Change the use of materials or technologies and people will need to learn new skills and build expertise. And because of this people will need to adjust to new norms. To the new ‘why we do it this way’. They will need to learn how to respond to questions from colleagues and clients, how to evaluate situations and how to make decisions.

Becoming sustainable is an organizational transformation. Not the next change in a line of projects, but a genuine alteration of processes and behavior. And that brings with it one of the nicest little paradoxes of this time: If the best way to start that transformation is to create a new default sustainable response in the organization, it would make no sense to start a ‘sustainability project’ to replace all plastic cups in the organization for biodegradable ones or glasses or mugs. The best approach would be to leave the plastic cups as they are and to transform the culture to one where nobody would want to order new ones.

Related insights