Solving the equation for sustainability-focused corporate culture

How can you shift a corporate culture so that it embodies environmental sustainability?  That was just one of the big questions explored at the recent Green Innovation in Business Solutions Lab in New York City.

At these "open space" conferences, participants self-organize into working groups charged with finding solutions to specific challenges.  I spent much of the day with 15 or so others equally passionate about building sustainability into organizational cultures.

Is it all about getting the incentives right, we wondered?  Look at companies like Intel and Unilever that have added sustainability goals to their employee bonus programs.  Or perhaps sustainability is brought in through recruiting practices that attract fresh green-minded talent?

Should sustainability be as much a social norm as safety is for many companies?  Think about manufacturing facilities where employees are so trained in EH&S protocols that they remind each other to put on their safety goggles.  But that approach might be too authoritative for companies that want their employees to feel empowered to innovate.

Is sustainability driven by front-line employees who want to feel good about where they work?  Does it need to be led by the executives or embraced by middle-management?

Ultimately, we landed upon a simple equation for a sustainability culture:

Start with a company-wide BHAG – you know, the "Big Hairy Audacious Goal."   It must come from the top (after some coaxing from sustainability champions at lower levels), and be sufficiently ambitious and inspirational—so much so that it's likely no one will know exactly how they are going to get there.  Recall WalMart's mandate to create zero waste; Unilever's vision to double the size of the business while reducing overall environmental impact; or Cisco System's 25% absolute carbon reduction goal.

Divide this BHAG by a set of programs that suit a given company—polices, competitions, incentives or training programs, combined with a data gathering and reporting mechanism.

Add in a critical variable:  Passionate internal advocates who keep the drumbeat going.

Hit the "equal" sign and voila! You have solved for a sustainability-focused corporate culture.

Or have you?  Let us know what your equation looks like.


  • Mary Ann Gallagher | 7 years ago

    Hi Beth,

    I'm really glad this came up, because I think it's the elephant
    in the room for any sustainability conference, book or class and it is too
    rarely asked/discussed. In the last year, of all the MANY sustainability events
    I attended, it was only brought up once.

    So I reserved 2 hours in my Sustainability Leaders Learning
    Exchange Program with Sustainable Silicon Valley last month to discuss it
    with over 30 sustainability leaders. I kicked it off with a very interactive presentation
    on where I was on this question at the time. For almost
    the whole time, everyone wanted to speak at once.

    I think one of the reasons so few people talk about this, or AT BEST give it an
    honorable mention with the mantra 'we need to change the culture',
    yet few talk about what that really entails.

    Basically, organizational developers have been struggling with the question
    of how to change organization's cultures for decades. It's pretty much proven that
    coming up with a BHAG from the top and a set of supporting programs that suit a given
    company—polices, competitions, incentives or training programs, combined with a data gathering and reporting mechanism doesn't work WITHOUT the most critical
    variable that you mention:
    Passionate internal advocates who keep the drumbeat going.

    What does 'keeping the drumbeat going' mean?

    That depends on how you think change happens in a culture.
    I think that you change an organization by interrupting the patterns of conversation
    that sustain the status quo and stimulate other conversations that
    begin to focus on and develop sustainability. One big bang event won't do it.

    Most people's attitudes and behaviors toward sustainability emerge from the
    give and take of every day conversations. No one can control this.
    Sustainability plans, BHAG,policies, and EMS tools are all in support of
    the main mission which is to influence and attract people to integrate
    sustainability into their daily decision making.

    Would love to hear other's thoughts.

    So 'keeping the drumbeat going' to me means forming informal and formal
    coalitions of sustainability advocates throughout the organization
    at every level of the company that help change the organization's conversation
    status quo to focus on and develop sustainability. This may be one of the most
    pivotal political strategies for creating AND sustaining momentum for

  • I couldn't agree more with this conversation. Beth, you did a great job capturing our group discussion at the NYC Solutions Lab. One way to draw out the "passionate internal advocates" is to invite ALL STAFF to participate on a green team. My experience shows that the "PIA's" sign up first. Combine that with mission, policies, communication tools, etc. these are the necessary ingredients to make real change happen.

  • Beth- thank you very much for sharing the issues and outcomes from the Innovations conference. As you noted, a central element to organizational success re: sustainability involves cultural shift.

    As a sustainability practitioner for over 30 years (though we called it other things in the 80's and 90's), true value comes in small victories at the individual, then small group, department and (finally) organization wide. To truly effect long term change requires a systematic approach to implementing sustainability within organizations. It's not (as you mentioned) always a top down approach, although BHAG's are vital to setting vision. The true change occurs at the bottom and middle layers of an organization…where front line staff meet lower management.

    But because the term "sustainability" is evidently so hard for many organizations to grasp and wrap their arms around, I find myself steering clients toward the tangible evidence of ISO 14001-2004’s benefits to organizational improvement and enhanced competitive position in the global marketplace. This type of systems oriented framework helps most organizations begin to establish a system that can drive cultural change, measure success and demonstrate to stakeholders a corporate commitment. ISO 14001 helps organizations to address the many intangible issues surrounding the “green” or “sustainability” mantra of the day.

    While “sustainability” is all good, the concept remains fuzzy to most organizations, because there is no standardized approach that can tightly define its boundaries. And perhaps that is a good thing since the aspects of sustainability are widely diverse and the organizational needs are so variable.

    ISO 14001-based management systems remain as relevant today as they were in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when manufacturers and public organizations were literally lining up at the door seeking assistance. I would argue that in today’s economic climate, rapid expansion of supply chain drivers and pending explosion of renewable energy technology, that the time may be ripe for a new look at the business appeal of ISO 14001-2004 to support implementation of those BHAG related sustainability goals.

    Well that is my two cents. Hope this generates additional thoughts in the sustainability continuum.

    Best Regards-

    Dave R. Meyer
    Vice President/Northwest Operations
    Sustainable Economic & Environmental Development Solutions (SEEDS)
    19215 SE 34th Street, Suite #106-264
    Camas, WA. 98607
    (O) 360.254.1029 | (C) 858.212.2020
    My Blog:
    Twitter: @DRMeyer1

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