Why the collective is so important when it comes to sustainability

We need to look after the planet much better than we have done over the past few decades, and that’s a collective responsibility that includes governments, businesses and individuals, says Simon Hill

That sustainability is one of the most pressing issues facing the planet is something few rational people would question now. Within the corporate world, businesses need to deliver true and lasting change and while it’s probably fair to say that some are doing better than others in this regard, I believe that there is at least a general understanding that more is required.

Some businesses have embedded sustainability as part of an overall corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, while others have put together sustainability teams – both are admirable and should be encouraged. But for an organisation to really make good on its sustainability goals it needs the collective ideas and input from a range of stakeholders, the people that know the business best and understand where sustainability can be most effectively deployed to have the most impact.

The importance of sustainability

Broadly speaking, sustainability looks to protect the natural environment, human and ecological health, while not overly compromising our way of life. It includes (but is not restricted to) initiatives such as carbon emission reduction, renewable fuel sources and reducing the use of plastic. It’s a not-insignificant challenge and one that is focusing the minds of many people all over the world.

The importance of sustainability is reflected in the United Nations (UN) and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As part of this, the UN announced 17 different but interconnected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by 193 UN member states and all designed to drive change in their respective areas.

The UN SDGs are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all and are becoming a major focus in business as companies look to address challenges relating to poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and much more. Every single initiative counts and every new idea to help solve these issues is valuable. For example, the UN has suggested that if everyone switched to energy-efficient lightbulbs, the world would save $120 billion USD.

Setting targets – such as the UN SDGs – around sustainability is an important way of ensuring progress and maintaining momentum. But such important objectives surely require as big a team effort as possible? How many businesses can truly say that their sustainability is a collective approach? 

Using the people that know a business best to drive lasting sustainability

For any business serious about sustainability, it requires a more inclusive strategy involving a range of communities and stakeholders, as well as the capture, evaluation and implementation of ideas from both inside and outside a business. Furthermore, such activity should begin to be woven into the core of what that business does and is aiming to achieve.

Capturing the ideas from partners, employees, suppliers, customers and more on how to implement sustainable business practices sounds obvious. There is a new wave of employees entering the workplace that may have obtained a bachelor’s degree in sustainability, (a course that combines social science and environmental science with future technologies) or due to their age are much more conscious of sustainability than perhaps older colleagues might be.

These people can make hugely important contributions to an organisation’s sustainability strategies, but so too can the employees that are not directly employed or trained in sustainability. They are the ones that know the business from the inside and can see where there might be efficiencies to be made. The same applies to many other individuals that might be directly or indirectly connected to an organisation.

When you work in an organisation it can sometimes be difficult to see beyond the day-to-day challenges and to get a handle on the bigger picture. Asking your customers about initiatives to drive sustainability could therefore be a fruitful and productive way of capturing ideas that just may not have occurred to people within the company. For a manufacturing firm, with a wide and complex supply chain, to be able to tap into the collective expertise within that supply chain would most likely be a very powerful source of sustainability ideas.

But few organisations can truly say that they are that democratic in how they capture ideas around sustainability. The reason is not that such ideas aren’t valued, but more that organisations are not properly set up to capture and manage those ideas effectively.  

Tapping into the brainpower of the collective

Key to harnessing the power of a wider group for ideas around sustainability lies in giving that group a platform to share and discuss ideas, and to create a culture that supports, encourages and rewards innovative thinking. Senior teams within a business need to focus on the ideas that will have a lasting impact on sustainability, so that means being able to filter all initial ideas via discussion and debate. An idea that isn’t quite right for now should never be discarded though because at another time it could be much more impactful.

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to all this, however. Some organisations will be more comfortable putting out requests for ideas, asking for specific solutions to specific sustainability challenges. Others may prefer an approach known as open innovation, where people can submit and discuss ideas without any pre-defined topic or focus.

Whichever route is chosen – often a combination is common – to create this culture of innovation, a long-term approach to collaborative working requires commitment right from the top. Senior figures within the business must set the tone and make it clear they are willing to take risks and learn from failure. More transparency and collaboration from the start, in terms of what is trying to be achieved with sustainability, is vital. The setting of goals is also important. When the overarching objectives are as grand and important as meeting sustainability targets, incremental goals along the way keep people focused and motivated whilst progress can be tracked.

The idea that the leadership team or even a dedicated sustainability team know precisely what’s best for an organisation’s sustainability, is highly limiting. These teams can provide direction and drive strategy, but the specific ideas themselves must come from across – and even outside – the organisation. Tapping into this collective brainpower is the most effective way of addressing sustainability, a true example of many hands making light work, and coming together for the greater good.

Simon Hill is the co-founder and CEO of idea management firm, Wazoku. He completed his MBA at the University of Bath Business School in 2003, before founding Wazoku in 2011. It supplies software to Waitrose, HSBC, MoD and many others, helping them capture the ideas and innovation within their communities.

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