10 Mistakes to Avoid for Effective Sustainability Decision-Making

You’ve got a great idea for moving your company closer to sustainability, but now comes the pesky problem of implementing it.

As you move from ideation to planning to testing to piloting to roll-out to analysis and continuous improvement, there will be dozens of decisions to make along the way. Any one of them can make or break your idea.

To help your odds, here is a list of ten ways to derail your sustainability idea. Avoid them at all costs. Nine of them come from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s excellent article 9 Habits That Lead to Terrible Decisions, published earlier this month in Harvard Business Review. The tenth one comes straight from my fifteen years in the world of corporate sustainability.

1. Be lazy

As Zenger and Folkman note, this flaw shows up as “failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input.” The first key to successful sustainability planning and execution is being prepared. Have you done your homework—not just about the idea itself, but about the people who need to sign off (and their attitudes towards sustainability), the fate of similar ideas that have been tried in the past, and the resources you will need to fully implement the idea over time?

2. Don’t anticipate unexpected events

Have you examined all the ways that your idea can go wrong? Based on my experience, sustainability plans go off the rails most often in these places:

  • Losing executive support due to re-assignments, turnover, or promotions
  • Being placed on a backburner when other issues come up
  • Becoming underfunded or losing financial incentives
  • Being upstaged by a competitor
  • Not anticipating key customer demands for supplier sustainability
  • Being targeted by an angry (and sometimes unreasonable) advocacy group
  • Failing to account for company culture and not properly engaging employees
  • Neglecting to consider upcoming mergers and acquisitions

Think that anticipating the unexpected can’t be done? “There is excellent research demonstrating that if people just take the time to consider what might go wrong, they are actually very good at anticipating problems,” write Zenger and Folkman. “But many people just get so excited about a decision they are making that they never take the time to do that simple due-diligence.”

3. Be indecisive

While due-diligence is essential, taken too far it can also create inertia. A loss of momentum can derail sustainability decisions for a variety of reasons, and decision-makers need to be prepared to keep moving towards the goal.

One of the key challenges in sustainability is the level of uncertainty. How fast will customer expectations change? Will the federal government ever take meaningful steps towards regulating climate change? What are our competitors doing, and how do we compare? What kind of data do we need to back up a compelling sustainability claim? It’s tempting to sit on the fence until there is a clear answer, but the reality is that by the time consensus emerges, you’ll be left behind in the dust. Figure out how much confidence you need to have to make a decision, and then stick to it. Don’t get stuck waiting for the perfect moment to act.

4. Remain locked in the past

Sustainability is an incredibly complex topic that is changing on an almost daily basis. In particular, the corporate sustainability landscape has been drastically altered in three key areas over the last couple years:

  • Laws and regulation , such as new reporting rules on conflict minerals, disclosure on human trafficking in supply chains, and GHG emissions reduction targets
  • Customer expectations , such as new executive orders on federal green purchasing, ramped-up requirements for labor and human rights auditing, and increasingly detailed supplier scorecards from major retailers
  • Marketing and advertising , such as the new FTC Green Guides for green marketing claims, greater focus on product sustainability through Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), and updated disclosure standards like the G4 GRI Guidelines and SASB industry standards.

The lesson here is that you can’t rely on knowledge, assumptions, and research from the past to guide your decisions going forward. If you can’t stay on top of the latest news coming out of the sustainability world, consider bringing in an outside expert to update you several times a year. You can save a lot of headaches by making sure your decision-making is based on fresh and relevant information.

5. Have no strategic alignment

Zenger and Folkman write, “Bad decisions sometimes stem from a failure to connect the problem to the overall strategy. In the absence of a clear strategy that provides context, many solutions appear to make sense. When tightly linked to a clear strategy, the better solutions quickly begin to rise to the top.”

Does the decision you are making have a clear and compelling link to your overarching sustainability strategy? Would your colleagues agree? Do you understand your company’s key sustainability goals? Do you understand how sustainability is integrated (directly and indirectly) with top-line business objectives? If not, take a step back and examine the context in which your decisions are being made.

6. Be overly dependent

While bad decisions are often made by a single person, often the problem is more systemic. This is frequently the case when sustainability ideas must be vetted and approved by multiple individuals in the company before action can be taken. If each step in the execution of your sustainability program has to be funneled through a Green Team, approved by a manager, championed by an executive, considered by steering committee, and then approved by a top executive, you are falling prey to over-dependence. Yes, get thorough review and buy-in for the project, but don’t let each micro-step in the process be micromanaged along the way.

7. Remain isolated

“All our research (and many others’) on effective decision making recognizes that involving others with the relevant knowledge, experience, and expertise improves the quality of the decision,” write Zenger and Folkman.

Sustainability decision-making almost always required cross-functional input. Make sure you bring the right people to the table to discuss options, identify resources, and review goals. And always, always ask the question “who are we missing”?

8. Lack technical expertise

Having the right people in the room to compensate for your lack of knowledge on a topic isn’t enough—which is why this mistake is one of the toughest to overcome. As Zenger and Folkman note, “[W]hen decision makers rely on others’ knowledge and expertise without any perspective of their own, they have a difficult time integrating that information to make effective decisions. And when they lack even basic knowledge and expertise, they have no way to tell if a decision is brilliant or terrible.”

The solution? Get the necessary technical expertise in any way that you can. Whether it’s understanding how to read a financial balance sheet, understanding how the procurement process works, or diving into energy management best practices for data centers, you must be prepared to learn enough to make a good decision.

9. Fail to communicate

“Some good decisions become bad decisions because people don’t understand – or even know about — them. Communicating a decision, its rational and implications, is critical to the successful implementation of a decision,” write Zengler and Folkman.

Unless the sustainability program occurs in a complete vacuum (which I’ve never seen happen), it’s critical to accompany every decision with the appropriate communication and engagement action. Do people understand why this sustainability decision is being made? Do they understand what it means for them, their job, their division, and the company as a whole? Do employees understand how they can help the initiative succeed? Do they understand where they can go for more information? A little communication can go a long way—so don’t neglect the personal side of the sustainability equation.

10. Focus on the story and forget the data

While the narrative behind a sustainability decision is what captures people’s attention and emotion, it’s just as critical to have solid data underlying any sustainability decision. As you balance competing priorities and business objectives, the best decisions will be backed up with robust, unbiased, relevant data. It’s the only way you are going to be able to answer the question: “are we getting the biggest bang for our buck?”

Thanks to 2degrees for publishing our article!

Want to avoid making sustainability mistakes? Here are some great sustainability tips from around internet that can be found in one our blog posts.

Featured B Corp of the Month: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and How They Surround Themselves with Sustainability

We’re big supporters of the principles behind the B Corp movement, but we want to do more than just "spread the love" about it, we want to share the sustainability success stories from other B Corps!  Each month we’ll be publishing an interview with a sustainability champion of a B Corp – and this month we are featuring Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams!

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams was founded in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio by Jeni Britton Bauer. Today, in addition to the company’s thriving nationally available home, grocery, and restaurant delivery business, Jeni and her team operate 16 scoop shops from Chicago to Atlanta. From the beginning, Jeni’s has been praised by many, including The Washington Post (“Sublime”), Saveur (“Revolutionary”), and Time (“the best ice cream in America”). In 2011, Jeni published Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. It became a New York Times best-selling cookbook and won a James Beard Award in 2012. Jeni’s new book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts, is available now.

What made your company decide that sustainability was a priority?

I don’t think we ever really made a decision, per se. It’s just always been a part of who we are. Respect and consideration are buried deep in our genes. What we don’t sell, we donate. What we don’t use, we compost. What we believe in, we support.

How do you engage employees in sustainability issues?

Well, we have the pleasure of attracting folks to our company who are already engaged. Jeni’s exists to make the best ice creams possible, but the other half of our mission is equally important: to make the world a better place. So when we look for new team members, we’re looking for more than just a skill set. Luckily, Jeni’s has always drawn creative, talented, and mindful folks to our ranks. Our workforce comes to us with a history of volunteering and composting and using rain barrels and tending gardens and a hundred other amazing things.

Because of this, many of our sustainability and community focused projects are generated from within. I think one of our most difficult challenges is managing the many projects and causes that our employees bring to us.

How are you addressing sustainability issues in your supply chain?

We like to keep our supply chain short and sweet. We know our farmers. We stay local when possible.

We support female and minority-owned businesses when possible. We look for suppliers that are working hard like we do at being good stewards.

One of the things that applying for the B Corp Certification did for us was make us log in just one place all the good things that our farmers and suppliers do for the world. Once we had all the information together, we created a sourcing decision tool. Now, we can see where we are doing well and were we can do better. It also helps us see how changing suppliers affects our initiatives.

Looking down our supply chain, we know we can do better. And we are instituting new programs to do just that. Our new Ship Back program allows our customers, both home shipping and wholesale retailers to send back the styrofoam coolers we use to ship ice cream back to us free of charge. We reuse the coolers as many times as we can. Then when they are no longer structurally sound, we take them over to the Columbus’ only styrofoam recycling center. Some day we hope to eliminate styrofoam from our shipments entirely. But while we test alternatives and work towards that lofty goal, we do what we can to reduce our usage.

How do you stay on top of emerging sustainability issues?

A combination of streaming digital information and group discussion among peers keeps us apprised of what’s new and good.

I must get 20 sustainability newsletters a day in my inbox. From Maine Organic Farmers to GovTrack to GreenBiz, I get them all. And my twitter feed is full of all the best links from Mother Nature Network, Bill McKibbon, B Corp, Grist, Mark Gunther, and Sierra Club.

And there are plenty of local groups here in Columbus where great minds come together to share and solve: CivicHacks, Ohio By-Product Synergy Network, BESA, and Green Columbus, and US Business Council for Sustainable Development to name just a few.

Who or what inspires your company in its sustainability journey?

We have so many great companies to look to and thank for paving a good chunk of this road. Ben & Jerry’s of course. They have always stood for what they believe in and their customers love them for it. Even within a giant corporation, they have kept their flag flying.

King Arthur Flour does an absolutely amazing job at treating their employees and the planet the way we all wish we could be treated. And their humble nature constantly keeps us in check.

Chipotle. They are making changes that the whole industry will benefit from and we love them for it.

And Clif Bar. Wow. Have you checked out all the amazing things they are doing around the country? This company is good through and through.

I’m constantly amazed at how much companies can do when they put their mind to it. We are certainly not short on sustainability icons.

About Christine Deye, Director of Community & Environmental Stewardship

Christine has wound her way through many adventures and interesting roles before finding a home at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Just prior to joining Jeni's, Christine received her MBA from OSU Fisher College of Business. While attending Fisher, she was president of the OSU chapter of Net Impact, a national organization that believes in people, planet, and profit. It was here where business school finally began to make sense.

After graduating, Christine came on board at Jeni’s. After managing the marketing team for year, her new role was created. In charge of all of Jeni's philanthropic and sustainability initiatives, her world is full of Certified B Corporation initiatives, employee gardens, and finding ways to save resources and the planet as the Good Witch of the Midwest.

Be sure to also check out Jeni’s blog, Facebook, twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest! You can contact Christine at christine@jenis.com.

3 Reasons NOT to Write a Sustainability Report

On the fence about whether or not your company should write a sustainability report? Check out these tips from a 2012 blog post to help guide your decision:

At Strategic Sustainability Consulting, we love sustainability reports. We think they are a critical aspect of a company's sustainability strategy, useful for looking back and measuring progress as well as a tool for future planning.

That doesn't mean your company should jump on the sustainability reporting bandwagon, however. In fact, there are several really good reasons NOT to produce a sustainability report (at least, not yet). Lucky for you -- we've compiled them in a nice, neat list for you!

1. You're really looking for a marketing "puff piece."

While it's true that sustainability reports can (and should) talk about all the good things that your organization is doing, the reality is that a sustainability report needs to be a complete and accurate reflection of what you are doing right *AND* wrong.

For each topic that you tackle, plan to cover the challenges and opportunities that you face. And make sure that you're including ALL the topics that your stakeholders care about -- not just the ones where you shine. A report that makes you look 100% "right" on sustainability is going to raise red flags -- and potentially unleash stakeholder backlash. The reports that really resonate with readers are the ones that are transparent and honest -- especially when they include a frank discussion about issues where you struggle. Honest and agile -- it goes a lot further than “a little too” squeaky clean.

2. You have a lot to say, but you can't back up your claims with data.

Before you start talking about your great energy efficiency initiatives, or your amazing employee diversity programs, or your robust product health and safety, please make sure that you have the metrics to back it up. Unfortunately, greenwashing allegations can plague the green marketing efforts of both the best and the worst of companies. One of the best ways to avoid this is to ensure you have the data to back up any and all claims, and it is consistently tracked over time. The proof is in the pudding; sooner or later, data is necessary to confirm a company’s sustainability efforts.

It's worth delaying your sustainability report for months (or even a year) in order to get the right data collection and analysis systems in place. Remember -- you'll be reporting on the same metrics year after year, so it's worth getting it right the first time out of the gate.

3. You don't have a cross-functional team ready to devote significant time and effort to the process.

No matter how enthusiastic you are, you cannot produce a sustainability report by yourself. (At least, not a good one.) Different departments will have different data, and you'll need someone who is great at seeing the big picture, someone who is obsessive about the details, someone who understands the data, and someone who is a great copy editor.

Take some time to get buy-in from the team you'll be relying on -- make sure that they understand what's being expected of them, the timeline you're proposing, and the effort they can anticipate putting forth.

These are all challenges that can be overcome with a little planning and coordination -- in fact, many of our clients hire us to help them prep for their first sustainability report. If you'd like to speak with someone on our team about the process of writing a sustainability report, please contact us for a complimentary consultation.