Sustainability: how to create radical change

Davide Stronati, Mott MacDonald

From established ways of working to relationships with suppliers, nothing should be sacred in the pursuit of your sustainability goals, says Davide Stronati. He offers three ways to achieve real change.

Lenders, investors, clients, partner organisations and consumers all favour businesses with strong sustainability credentials, giving them a competitive edge. 

This was the resounding message of clients and partner organisations, mainly from the infrastructure sector, which came together at our 2014 Sustainability Conference to discuss their experiences of integrating sustainability into their business strategies. 

"With change comes resistance; and the more transformative the change, the greater the resistance from people and systems used to doing things ‘the old way’"

However, many companies approach sustainability with a view to inflicting as little change on ‘the way we do things’ as possible, with small, incremental benefits mirroring the small internal changes they are willing to make. Sustainability can deliver major, breath-taking improvements in business performance. But to achieve this, companies need to embrace real change, and that can be very uncomfortable. 

The 2015 Sustainability Conference in October will see leading companies from different industries share learnings on how sustainability is bringing value, and will explore how organisations can challenge business as usual to enact substantial change. 

Speakers will explore topics as diverse as how one of the world’s largest courier companies managed to transform challenging regulation into a competitive advantage; maximising water efficiency in the beverage industry; and the steps taken by one of Europe’s leading retailers has unleashed innovation to make significant sustainability gains.

We expect the conference will throw up a number of radical ideas that will prove challenging to even the most adventurous business leaders, but which will force sustainability to the top of the agenda.

To begin the debate, here are some ways organisations can bring real change to their operations: 

Scrutinise everything

Leaders need to regularly scrutinise their organisation’s practices to ensure it is performing at its best. The best way to do this is to ask questions:

Why do you do things the way you do? Is it just the way you have always done them? Company policies may have been right when they were first initiated, but this doesn’t mean they are still best practice today. 

Can things be done differently? Almost certainly yes. Stretch targets, introduce best practice from different industries or take advantage of new technology to drive forward the sustainability agenda. 

What is the future going to look like? Sustainability should be a key part of companies’ five to ten year business plans, with the correlation between commercial, social and environmental performance clearly mapped. Integrated forecasting will help you work out how sustainability can be used to stretch your business and enhance performance. 

Set audacious goals

Too often businesses set themselves goals they know they can achieve. But the companies which have accomplished the most dramatic business improvements are those that have broken free of ‘current’ thinking and set themselves radical goals. This demands innovation which is the engine of commercial ideas.

Challenge the supply chain

An organisation’s supply chain should be considered the natural extension of its business, so leaders are entitled to demand efficiencies. Here are three ways to make a supply chain work harder:

Integrate the supply chain into business strategy. Businesses should engage with their supply chains in the same way they engage with internal departments, with targets clearly set out and explained. 

Reward companies who meet ambitious sustainability goals. Businesses can have as many R&D centres as they have suppliers. They should be demanding with providers, but fair and rewarding with the ones who achieve success.

Specify outcomes, not methods. Tell your suppliers what you want to achieve but don’t prescribe how; suppliers know their sector and are best placed to find solutions.

Drastic changes to business practices such as these will lead to real commercial gains. 

However, with change comes resistance; and the more transformative the change, the greater the resistance from people and systems used to doing things ‘the old way’. It takes dedicated leaders who will relentlessly advocate the importance and benefits of new ways of working to effect substantial change within their organisations.

It’s hard work, but the benefits of sustainability are up for grabs for businesses willing to embrace radical change.

Davide Stronati is Group Sustainability Manager at Mott MacDonald.