How Sustainability Efforts Fall Apart

Sustainability has become the new corporate imperative. Companies have begun doing their homework, diligently setting up a number of initiatives. This is a good starting point, but too often, firms are unable to systematically scale these efforts to achieve a more transformative outcome.

Source: Lucy Jones

The combination of accelerating climate change, rising income inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and geopolitical conflicts have created a perfect storm of challenges to how businesses and economies are run. In response, pressed by investors, employees, activists, and consumers, companies are launching sustainability initiatives at an unprecedented pace. This is good news. After many years of skepticism and lack of commitment, companies have finally begun taking sustainability seriously, setting ambitious goals and targets. The bad news is that there is still a huge gap between ambition and action.

Over the last few years, in our work as consultants, we have witnessed the development and implementation of dozens of companies’ sustainability programs across different sectors. We have observed that, after positive beginnings, most sustainability programs get stuck and are unable to scale. Without scale, long-term goals are simply not attainable—or are delayed for years, which reduces credibility and increases external pressure from customers and other stakeholders.

So, what makes sustainability at scale difficult to achieve? Talking with executives, a number of recurring patterns emerge. They show that the real blockers to sustainability are hidden inside companies and are often the result of what was considered sound management practice in the 20th century. These are the “hidden enemies” of sustainability: the prevailing organizational winds that tend to blow in the direction of routine and an incremental approach rather than sustaining a more radical and transformative journey.

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