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Bridging the gap: What your sustainability plan says on paper versus what it does in practice

Bridging the gap: What your sustainability plan says on paper versus what it does in practice 

In addition to the critical imperative to protect the environment and drive better business practices, effective sustainability policies can serve as a top recruitment and retention tool, build a more engaged workforce and lower operating costs.

At the heart of the mismatch is this: business leaders write very solid sustainability policies that employees simply don’t follow.

My job gives me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of C-suite executives across Canada, many of whom help develop sustainability plans. This could be mandating the use of recycled paper, outlining clear policies around the collection and end of life of employee mobile devices or implementing sustainable data storage policies. But often times, these policies are not seeing widespread adoption across the business. And this gap between sustainability programs and their adoption is a key reason why sustainability efforts in many Canadian businesses are lagging.

Right now, the consequences for an organization’s ineffective sustainability program is still relatively low, however, regional and federal legislation will continue to raise the stakes.

So why are so many businesses struggling on this front? The answer is each department of every organization in Canada has differing needs, so it is challenging to employ a “one size fits all” policy that is feasible across the board.

The good news is there are a number of high-level strategies that your business can adopt to close the mismatch gap. And more importantly, encourage employees to join you on the sustainability journey:

Establish clear, relevant and accountable goals

Goals keep you accountable, but they have to be ones that resonate with employees and make a difference in your business operations and supply chain.

You can start small here, but make sure you clearly outline your focus. You can set a goal to reduce your overall environmental impact, but it might make more sense to pick one area of your business – such as your supply chain or product packaging – and work from there.

Last June, we announced our goal to achieve zero deforestation by 2020 by deriving all of our HP brand paper and product packaging from certified or recycled sources. It’s a goal that is good for us, our employees, our customers and the bottom line. Our employees and customers can now make responsible printing and purchasing decision which lower their environmental impact.

While there are inevitably many areas to work on, a key area to consider includes looking at what your partners and suppliers are doing and whether or not they meet the specifications you have outlined. For example, build sustainability criteria into the procurement contracts and agreements you make with them and ensure your partners pledge to meet the goals too.

You might also want to find an outside organization to independently verify your progress toward your goals.

And, of course, publically reporting and updating on your progress can help keep you accountable.

Find sustainability champions

Getting employees to buy-in is a huge part of any sustainability journey and a big reason for the gap.

It might not be practical to hire a team of sustainability professionals to join your organization, so the next best thing is to find your sustainability champions. Every business function—from shipping all the way through to end-of-life management—has a need for sustainability. The sustainability champion can play a vital role in helping to identify these opportunities and drive programs to address them.

Finding and empowering people in your organization who are going to recognize clear ways to positively change the way you operate from a sustainability lens is critical. These sustainability champions – whether they are in legal, marketing, finance, operations or sales – can also spearhead sustainability education.

One resource that businesses should encourage employees to check out is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet @ Work, which offers free step-by-step guides to help businesses reduce their footprint, audit trackers for measuring progress, campaign toolkits, and a wealth of links to relevant articles and videos. The WWF’s Smart Office Challenge provides businesses with free tools like a green information technology checklist, office scavenger hunt, power down audit and more. These tools provide a great way for businesses understand environmental impacts associated with IT and drive stronger employee engagement

And these days, as millennials actively seek companies to work for that share their morals and beliefs, a strong business-wide sustainability effort serves as a way to attract and retain the best and brightest employees.

Expand your view of where sustainability belongs

Businesses can’t view sustainability as a one-off program, but rather as something that needs to be implemented within every aspect of the business, from top to bottom.

This starts by looking beyond your organization’s four walls to see what your footprint is across your supply chain as well as within your customers’ and partners’ organizations. These are often overlooked areas, but not as neglected as looking deep into your business – particularly when designing products and services. For example, think about whether you are designing products that make it easy for your customers to do more and consume less. Can you bake sustainability principles into your product or service at the design and prototyping stage?

Make sustainability a key design pillar for every project you have going forward and you’ll likely find ways it can actually drive innovation as opposed to trying to shoehorn “green” features further down the road.

Both customers and investors are increasingly demanding better sustainability efforts from businesses large and small. Becoming a sustainability leader starts with the goals you set and continues with how you incorporate it into the fabric of your business and the hearts of your employees.

Mary Ann Yule is President and CEO of HP Canada Co.

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