How to embed sustainability in day-to-day operations and decision-making
There is consensus among leaders in business, government and academia that the time to take action on social and environmental challenges is now. “Social responsibility and environmental sustainability are not just topics of discussion, they are realities this and future generations have to address. That’s not a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity,” says Ali Dastmalchian, dean of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
This urgency to drive results has inspired collaborative endeavours like the Embedding Project, a public-benefit research project hosted at Beedie, says Dr. Dastmalchian. “This is an area where people are very thirsty for knowledge. We work together to generate solutions to some of today’s complex problems in order to foster positive change.”
Public institutions like SFU have a crucial role to play in generating and disseminating well-researched and well-presented resources that can positively shape business practice – a goal that is well aligned with SFU’s strategic vision, says Dr. Stephanie Bertels, founder of the Embedding Project and associate professor at Beedie.
“We want to be there to help companies from the moment they are asking, ‘What can we be doing?,’” she says. “Being a corporate change agent isn’t easy. While companies may say they want to change, there can be a lot that stands in the way of that change.”
Any company’s path to embedding sustainability will reflect its organizational context, culture and leadership, yet in-depth work with dozens of companies across a range of industries and jurisdictions shows some common turning points, explains Dr. Bertels. “Our embedding framework highlights 60 practices companies need to pay attention to, which include everything from integrating sustainability into governance to paying attention to what stories get repeated over and over.”
While the Embedding Project serves to direct companies toward creating favourable organizational conditions, it has also evolved into a true community of practice, she says. “Real learning and insights, we find, come when there is high trust – and vulnerability – in the room. We are intentional and explicit about creating the safe spaces for this to unfold.”
With trust comes openness about challenges, explains Dr. Bertels. Members of the Embedding Project’s Peer to Peer Networks, for example, value having time to bring a problem to the table so that other members can offer their input to help solve it.
“Our peer meetings bring companies from a range of different industries together, so there is often someone in the room that can bring a fresh perspective,” she says. “By learning from the experiences of companies across a broad range of industries, we can harness their collective knowledge to help all companies embed sustainability into their day-to-day operations and decision-making.”
More and more corporate leaders realize that their business success is tied to sustainability, says Dr. Dastmalchian. The Beedie School’s engagement with business and communities brings a practical perspective to mapping out a way forward. At the same time, it is inspiring students, graduates, faculty and partners to recognize the true value of embedding the principles of corporate social and environmental responsibility across organizations, communities and society.
Dr. Bertels believes that when the goal is measurable impact, tracking performance can enable companies to prioritize their efforts and adjust their course. However, the trouble is that many companies can’t tell whether their culture is conducive to embedding sustainability or how the goals they are setting measure up, she says. “That’s where our research comes in. We help companies to benchmark themselves on the practices that support a strong culture of sustainability decision-making and determine whether they are setting strong enough goals.”
Companies benefit from the opportunity to rigorously reflect on what they are doing and where they fall short, says Dr. Bertels. “We see over and over that this helps to drive further action.”
Yet while a focus on challenges is important, “we also need to take the time to celebrate small wins,” she says. “If anything, the corporate leaders we work with are so focused on what remains to be done that they don’t take time to celebrate the important successes they have achieved.”
The Embedding Project received a 2019 Top Project award from Canada’s Clean50, the organization dedicated to celebrating efforts and achievements that advance sustainable development and clean capitalism in Canada. “It’s a privilege to be recognized for our work,” says Dr. Bertels. “Just like the corporate change agents we support, we sometimes need to stop and reflect that we are doing our part to address pressing societal challenges.”
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