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12 steps to start your corporate sustainability program

March 27, 2023

A guide to help you get your company’s sustainability program off the ground.

Here's a common scenario happening at companies across America. Someone from leadership has decided that sustainability is now important. They task an internal team or manager with getting their company’s sustainability program started. The problem? Sustainability is such a broad topic—there are so many paths to go down, decision paralysis sets in, and the program never gets off the ground because the sustainability team doesn’t know where they should start.

If that sounds like your company, keep reading.

If you’re starting a sustainability program at your company, you might be intimidated by the sheer amount of information out there. Should you measure your emissions? (Yes! But you can start other initiatives simultaneously.) When should you implement a sustainability program? (Honestly, we’re all pretty behind, but don’t let that be the reason you never start—there’s no time like the present.)

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So how do you make a short-term sustainability plan and what are the steps to developing a long-term sustainability program? Well, because every company’s sustainability goals look different, every action plan will also look slightly different. However, we’ve put together 12 steps that are important for any company to consider when starting their corporate sustainability program.

1. Understand what’s important to your company’s stakeholders

Establishing the right priorities is one of the key challenges for organizations launching sustainability programs. A structured, formal stakeholder engagement process will help you bring diverse perspectives together, build advocacy, and shape your sustainability program while taking the guesswork out of priority setting.

No organization operates in a vacuum. Your business activities impact employees, customers, communities, and the environment while competitors, policymakers, insurers, and investors exert pressure and influence. To maximize positive outcomes for stakeholders and decision-makers, you need to ask for input and weigh it against business objectives. If you plan to publish a sustainability report, engaging your stakeholders should come first. After all, a report is a form of stakeholder communication, and you need to speak to their needs and requirements to get buy-in.

2. Identify key sustainability areas with a materiality matrix

It’s impossible to tackle every single sustainability issue at your organization—trying to do so would result in a sustainability program that lacks focus or the potential for meaningful change. A materiality matrix or map is a way to help set your sustainability priorities. Think of it as a tool to visually represent the sustainability issues that matter most to you and your stakeholders. While materiality is the backbone of sustainability reporting, you can also use this exercise to help set your strategic priorities.

A materiality matrix should help create clarity and focus by tying stakeholder needs to your business and reporting strategies. From there, you’ll be better positioned to understand where you can make the biggest impact.

3. Create a sustainability mission statement or vision

A vision or mission statement will be your organization’s sustainability north star—it should define big picture goals and organization promise. Your vision and mission should include foundational topics relevant to growth and future objectives, which will likely evolve.

As your organization matures, your sustainability efforts should permeate all aspects of your organization—brand identity, organization culture, and even positively impact your financial performance. Communicate your commitments and progress across your organization—both up and down your value chain and to stakeholders.  

4. Develop a sustainability strategy

After understanding what’s important to your organization and stakeholders, you can build your sustainability program’s foundation. Focus on specific programs and brainstorm potential initiatives to pursue before setting targets or goals. It’s critical to tie material sustainability topics back to your core business—for example, if biodiversity is important, how does your business directly protect habitat and wildlife? What opportunities exist in your value chain?  

5. Set targets and goals

Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) to focus on and attach those to a set period. Center around operational areas like energy, water, and waste. You might even want to focus on community health, or cost savings. It’s helpful to think into the future with a ten-year goal or plan, then back into intermittent goals (for the year or by quarter). Eventually, you’ll want to set and pursue a more ambitious net-zero goal by benchmarking your emissions, then work on initiatives to help achieve your goals over time.

6. Assign accountability for sustainability targets

Setting sustainability targets is relatively simple, but achieving them requires effort and accountability. From 2018 to 2019, U.S. emissions in the commercial sector rose by 1.8%, despite a record number of organizations publishing emissions reduction targets. While many factors can contribute to missed targets—like organizational growth exceeding planned efficiency gains or unforeseen emergencies—the culprit is more often the lack of accountability for achieving sustainability targets. Unfortunately, they often take a backseat to competing priorities that are more adequately incentivized.

To increase your chance of success, take a two-pronged approach that creates accountability for your organization and individual team members. Selecting the right team, business unit, or manager to carry out sustainability initiatives tied to targets and goals is critical. Plus, you’ll want to create accountability and progress mechanisms to assess the team’s effectiveness and decide when to dedicate more resources.  

7. Pursue sustainability initiatives

Utilize Sustain. Life’s extensive library of Guides for distinct programs that support your larger sustainability strategy.

Some recommendations:

– If you’ve set a goal for 50% or 100% renewable energy supply: Install on-site renewable energy systems or purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs).
– If you’ve set a waste reduction and diversion goal: Start a composting program, select a qualified waste hauler, or reduce office printing.
– If you need to create accountability: Create a green team.
– If you want to focus on supply chain emissions: Implement a supplier code of conduct.
– If you want to get more ideas about taking your program to the next level: Join sustainability collaborations, associations, or coalitions.

8. Train staff on sustainability topics

To create a successful sustainability strategy, every employee must understand how sustainability affects your industry, their role, and your organization’s overall goals and operations. Effective employee training will help sustainability thinking permeate your organization.

Corporate training leads to excellence through increased employee contributions, new ideas, and engagement opportunities. It also fosters knowledge transfer, innovation, efficiency, and competitive insight.  

9. Decide on measurements and metrics

Consistent measurements and metrics are essential to setting a baseline and tracking your progress. You’ll be able to better normalize data for consistent comparisons—by employee, square foot, revenue, or unit produced for meaningful comparison across reporting periods, locations, business units, etc.

10. Measure sustainability impact on new projects

Integrate sustainability into all assessment criteria in the same way you assess financial risk and opportunities. As your organization starts new projects—whether opening a new office, working with a new client, or launching a new product—you’ll need to assess each decision’s environmental and social impact.

11. Educate stakeholders about your work and publish a sustainability report

Collaboration between internal and external partners is key to the success of your organization’s sustainability strategy. Bring your stakeholders along on your sustainability journey by setting goals and tailoring information to each party’s needs. In the long run, it will lead to meaningful organizational change.  

A sustainability report details your strategy, approach, targets, commitments, and performance in all areas of organizational responsibility. It’s a robust and transparent account of your accomplishments and challenges. Sustainability reports are usually branded digital documents or a collection of dynamic web pages aimed at numerous stakeholders. Some companies have moved to integrated reporting, combining their annual financial and sustainability disclosures. Consider aligning your disclosures with existing frameworks, further validating your efforts in the eyes of your customers and regulatory bodies.

12. Continuous monitoring

Sustainability programs are not “set it and forget it”—they’re an always-on journey. You’ll constantly want to refine your processes—re-engage with stakeholders, revisit your materiality matrix to ensure it still reflects critical priorities, and update your strategy as needed.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

How do you make a short-term sustainability plan? What are the steps to developing a long-term sustainability program? Every company’s sustainability goals look different, so every action plan will also look slightly different.