5 Ways to Make Sustainability Part of Your Business Strategy

At Sustainable Brands ’15 in San Diego, we had the opportunity to hear from Chip Bergh, chief executive officer of Levi Strauss. While there were many brilliant and inspiring leaders and thinkers who spoke at the conference, hearing directly from a CEO is always special. Bergh did not disappoint, declaring, “As the CEO of Levi Strauss, I spend all my time on sustainability, the sustainability of this corporation.”

Bergh said sustainability is starting to drive consumer behavior and doing the right thing can be a growth engine for a company. His example: “Waterless” jeans, the production of which requires no water, make up 25 percent of Levi’s jeans sales, while “acid wash” jeans have all but disappeared from the fashion scene.

I was reminded during his talk and throughout the conference that sustainability/corporate social responsibility (CSR) – unlike acid wash jeans – is NOT a fad. Of course, the attendees of this conference are among the strongest advocates of sustainability in the corporate world – perhaps in the world overall – today. Even still, I believe the movement of businesses doing good in their communities, protecting the environment and uplifting their employees – all while continuing to focus on their bottom line – is here to stay and, in fact, is only getting stronger.

For businesses, that means making sustainability an integral part of business strategy and communications. Here are a few ideas for doing so:

  • Get executive leadership on board. Otherwise, you will likely continue to spin your wheels. Develop a business case, assemble an oversight council, find a champion – and make sure you have buy-in.

  • Take a fresh look at your report. Many sustainability and CSR reports have morphed into overwhelming documents detailing every single activity a company is doing. Instead, think about the primary messages you want to communicate – a materiality assessment could help with that – and build the report to highlight those. And, if you haven’t done so in a while, conduct benchmarking research to find out where your peers are and how their reports have evolved.

  • Amplify your story internally and externally. Sustainability reports are not enough – companies can continue the conversation throughout the year. Internal communications (e.g., intranet articles, a newsletter, etc.) will help keep employees engaged – which builds momentum. Externally, social media is a great tool and, especially for B2B companies, sustainability content is a great way to be active on these channels. (Bonus points for having a robust corporate blog like Levi Strauss!)

  • Recruit internal champions. You can’t do this alone – whether you are the corporate communications, sustainability, operations or jack-of-all-trades person. Build relationships with the employees who are most passionate about sustainability and activate them. Continually recruit new people to keep up the momentum and bring in new ideas. Also make sure to get managers on board, who could be integral to encouraging their direct reports to be involved.  

  • Track your progress. Whether formal or not, and even if only used internally, goals are a must. You have to know where you are trying to go and how you are planning to get there. They could be quantitative (reduce electricity consumption at headquarters by X%) or more qualitative (form more green teams throughout the organization). Either way, having a clear roadmap will keep you focused and committed.

While those acid wash jeans should, without a doubt, be recycled (or at least stored in the farthest corner of your closet), it’s time to move sustainability to the core and tell a clear, consistent story to reinforce your company’s commitment. 

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