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How To Create A Sustainable Organizational Culture In 6 Steps

André Gonçalves - Editor & Head Of English Market

After studying and working in HR, André studied sustainability management at Lisbon's School Of Economics & Management. He is responsible for the English speaking market of Youmatter since 2018.

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How to create a sustainability culture in business? What are the benefits of sustainable culture and what are good examples of a sustainable organizational culture? Let’s find out.

Sustainable Workplaces: From Strategy to Culture

In today’s highly globalized world, sustainability is increasingly becoming an integral part of doing business in any industry.

Reputation management, employment branding, or cost savings, there are many more reasons why embracing sustainability is detrimental for businesses.

Regarding reputation, we’ve recently analyzed a Forbes & Reputation Institute Ranking about the companies with the best reputation in 2021 that might interest you.

But how can businesses balance their financial, social, and environmental risks, as well as their obligations and opportunities in the long term? That’s an easy one: by developing a sustainability strategy.

Just is a sustainability strategy, let alone, enough?

If done well, a sustainability strategy means reviewing a company’s purpose and mission at first. This means moving from a stakeholder first, business as usual mindset, to a collaborative, nature-centered worldview with value creation for many.

Image credits not found.

Such sustainability strategies help companies prepare before they apply for high sustainability standards – such as the B Corp Certification. Usually, it includes developing a materiality analysis, measuring a company’s impacts, and developing a theory of change matrix.

However, this article isn’t focused on how to create a sustainability strategy. You can find more information on this issue here.

Today we’re focused on how to support, in this long-term, previously created sustainability strategy. And there are many different actions that can be taken to ensure a company stays committed to sustainability over the years.

They are all play of what we can call an organizational culture of sustainability.

What Is a Culture of Sustainability in Business?

Many business leaders – perhaps even yourself? – lack a clear understanding of how to embed sustainability in their day-to-day decisions and processes. And at the same time, they (you?) want not only to embed such a mindset: they’re also looking to understand how to ‘sustain’ sustainability in their organizations in the long term.

That’s how a culture of sustainability comes in.

Let’s remember that there’s no official definition of sustainability – although we at Youmatter® tried to cover all the issues related to this topic. There’s only an official definition of what sustainable development is (despite both concepts being commonly used interchangeably) which stands for “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987).

Similar to sustainability, organizational culture can also be defined in many different ways.

Academic definitions make reference to shared assumptions and values as well as expected behaviors and symbols. Hofstede Insights speak of culture consisting of various layers, which they synthetic as you can see in the picture below.

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Generally speaking, we can say organizational culture is the set of beliefs, ideologies, processes, and attitudes held by the people that make up an organization. It may arise organically on its own and it can be framed and influenced by internal business practices and policies.

Moreover, an organization’s culture guides the decisions of its members by setting and reinforcing expectations about what is appreciated and how things should be done. This provides a sense of identity to its members – whose behaviors constantly reinforce and reshape the culture – about who they are and what they do.

Once we mix both terms, we can see a culture of sustainability as one in which organizational members have shared assumptions and beliefs about the value of balancing economic efficiency, social fairness and environmental impacts.

Therefore, organizations with a strong sustainability culture strive to support a healthy environment and improve the lives of others while continuing to operate successfully over the long term.

But how can such sustainable business cultures be created?

Building from Hofstede’s Model, here are 5 examples of how to create a culture of sustainability, whose implementation will vary greatly according to the stage, industry, and agility of organizations:

1 – In Companies With A Sustainable Culture, Senior Management Must Walk the Talk

As role models of the company, senior managers play a fundamental role in showing everyone the importance sustainability plays to the company.

For instance, by explicitly favoring long-term vs. short-term payoff options during meetings everyone is remembered that shortcuts to profiting at the expense of the planet and society aren’t the way to “get things done”.

Of course, it is not just what senior managers say – what they actually do matters too.

So if they use public transport regularly or if they have plant-based diets they are setting the examples and send a strong signal to everyone in the company.

2 – How To Create A Sustainable Culture? Create Rituals Where Values Are Lived

Culture arises in a group of people from a series of understood notions that are validated by repetition over time and then passed on to a wider group of employees or those who are new to an organization. 

So you need to make sure your company’s values are lived – and that’s where rituals come in. So make sure the company’s sustainability vision is regularly remembered and celebrated in different ways and at different scales.

Sure, you can’t have great team-building sessions in the mountains every week.

But there are small rituals such as fun/inspiring meeting greetings or blocking everyone’s agenda at the same time once a week just to remind them to take a break and remember the “why” behind their (and the company’s) work.

Organizing activities like sustainability weeks, team competitions, or communication campaigns also help employees learn about sustainability issues. Moreover, if awareness-raising activities are organized during their personal time and families are included, they will understand how environmental issues affect everyone and will be more intrinsically motivated to act.

Furthermore, encouraging or even facilitating employees to use their spare time doing some activity many have in common may help reinforce the business sustainability culture too.

Letting employees go surfing when the forecast looks good (Chouinard’s tells it best in his great book), or renting a common area with individual spaces for employees to grow their own vegetable gardens and meet occasionally are two examples.

3 – Create Sustainability Symbols that Support a Sustainable Organizational Culture

Another example of a sustainable culture is one there are sustainability symbols.

Symbols a lot like rituals as they are also intended to help draft a company’s sustainability culture and values, except they don’t require any action.

The language used, the colors used for internal and external communications, the type of food or drinks that are regularly consumed, an animal mascot (that’s replicable in cool stickers), an office filled with plants, or some object that relates to the company’s mission, some sort of game that’s played during all-hands events…

Use your imagination, having in mind that your goal is to have symbols that make people remember the company’s vision, reinforcing a sense of belonging and cohesion and a culture of sustainability.

4 – Put Together the Best Team To Help Create A Sustainability Culture

Every company has employees who already care about the environment. These people are usually eager to contribute to the creation of a culture of sustainability – find them and recognize them formally!

Seriously, these “sustainability representatives” can be used as facilitators for sustainability initiatives and they can also work as gatekeepers that communicate sustainability ideas or concerns to/from the sustainability strategic team.

The “extra” work of these sustainability “champions” should be recognized either during performance reviews or in some other way since they are the face of a culture where information as ideas flow easily.

5 – Organizing Training Sessions Is An Example Of How To Create A Sustainable Business Culture

Organize training sessions to make sure your company’s workforce remains updated on the latest sustainability breakthroughs. If you make sure they learn about the latest trends – generally speaking, within the industry or new internal programs – and aware of what your most stakeholders are expecting and how the company is responding, everyone wins.

It can, but it doesn’t have to be a formal training session(s). There are many fun and engaging ways of teaching sustainability: from quizzes to games or workshops like the Climate Collage.

6 – Get the Company Involved In Sustainability Forums

There’s a lot going on these days.

Make sure your company doesn’t get behind and participates in sustainability forums where best practices are shared and discussed.

These sustainability forums are often where public, private and third sectors meet to accelerative innovative pathways towards sustainability. Your employees will be proud to know you are taking the company’s culture to the outer world and that it is contributing to (or learning from) positive (and meaningful, hopefully) change.

Creating A Sustainability Culture Vs. Designing A Sustainability Strategy

Image credits to the “Network for Sustainable Business” (2010)

We’ve been focused on the left side of the image above from the Network for Sustainable Business – the side where culture is most present.

However, one must have in mind that culture and strategy walk hand in hand and that one needs the other to work at its best.

To remember that creating environmental policies, setting environmental key performance indicators (KPIs) that go from the C-suite to entry-level employees and are integrated into the performance management system is fundamental to the design of a culture of sustainability.

As are doing regular reporting and audits and having the door open to the possibility of developing new products and services and even change business models.

So when you design your company’s sustainable culture, don’t forget to back it up with a strong sustainability strategy. And if you started designing a sustainability strategy, don’t forget you’ll need a sustainability culture to support it.

[Image credits to Arlington Research and Austin Distel on Unsplash]

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