When it comes to implementing sustainability many organizations fail to effectively determine how to utilize their internal staff to move the company’s program from concept to action. It is vitally important to determine what sustainability organizational structure aligns best with the company’s culture, resources, and ultimately ambition with regards to sustainability. Below the Step-by-Step Guide are four of the most common organizational structures you may want to consider when determining how to operationalize sustainability in your company.
A Step-by-Step Guide
Build the Business Case. Ensure that your top leadership supports the development of a sustainability program so that your work to determine the best structure for your program are worthwhile.
Evaluate current state of sustainability: If you are revamping an old initiative or starting a new team, we suggest you survey employees to identify their current skills, knowledge, and attitudes regarding sustainable business practices.
Understand and Address Barriers: If you identified barriers in your survey that may hinder your success in launching a sustainability program, be sure you understand the root cause and address barriers when possible. Some common barriers tend to be:
- I am unsure of my role. What is expected. What should be done?
- People are busy – sustainability is not seen as time well spent by my manager.
- Sustainability is not supported from the top down. Work is done outside of job roles.
Choose a Structure. Once you have surveyed employees and identified barriers review the most common organizational structures below. These include: Volunteer Green Team; Sustainability Steering Council; Department Green; and Internal and External Support. Each of the structures have advantages and disadvantages and you need to decide which model would work best in your companies culture.
Get Buy-In. Once you have determined which structure will work best for your company, present your recommendation to the individuals and teams that will be responsible for helping carry out the structure moving forward. This may also include senior leadership who will need to sign off on budget and individuals who you think may be interested in participating. (Add button: Distribute Commitment Statement). Be sure this buy-in relates to a shared understanding of what success looks like for your sustainability program.
Launch your Team. Ensure you have cross department representation, define roles and responsibilities, and set goals! Determine how you will measure success on these goals and empower your team with the tools and resources they need to be successful.
Four Most Common
Volunteer Green Team:
This is the most common structure for companies just starting out with sustainability; it usually relies on a handful of passionate employees to provide support for sustainability in addition to their current roles in the company.
To most, the idea of a company green team seems fairly simple—a small effort that allows a subset of employees to gather around a shared interest. In practice, however, green teams can be much more powerful when done right. They can inspire, activate, and engage employees to create meaningful changes within a company.
- Inexpensive for a company as it relies on existing employees and resources already in place
- Allows employees who are passionate about environmental and social areas to participate in the company’s sustainability program
- Green teams can help an organization improve its risk management while realizing operational efficiencies and cost savings.
- Green teams foster cross-functional collaboration and develop a community of learning and innovation.
- Most green teams lack the authority to make a major change to a company’s sustainability performance, so are regulated to performing smaller items like recycling.
- A lack of formal roles and responsibilities can make participants feel frustrated and burnt out.
- Lack of visibility across the organization and with senior management, leading to poor recognition and support.
- Internal employees often do not have the necessary expertise to create and execute an effective sustainability plan, and adding this to their existing workload may leave them with little time to bring the focus that is necessary for such a change.
Sustainability Steering Council
This is very similar to the green team but operates at a more senior level in the organization with key departmental resources allocated to support sustainability efforts.
Most companies create a sustainability council to bring together key leaders from each department to discuss how business issues can be solved through sustainable practices. A sustainability council borrows a lot of the same structure from a green team, but tends to have: participants of a higher seniority, usually Director / VP level or above; has a direct report into senior leadership or the C-suite; and is responsible for incorporating sustainability alongside day to day business strategy
- The steering council has a more active role in advancing sustainability alongside strategic business goals.
- Better senior leadership visibility, participation, and ultimately support for sustainability aims and objectives.
- Ability to set more clear direction and assign ownership to additional support staff for implementation.
- Higher cost to a company than a green team due to greater senior level time commitment.
- A potential difficulty for council members to allocate and prioritize time to sustainability tasks and support in addition to daily roles and responsibilities.
- Can make strong progress early on, but steering council may stagnate and not continually improve year after year.
Needs for A Steering Council
This option actually establishes a formal sustainability department in the organization, either reallocating current employees to the department or hiring new employees.
For many organizations getting a green team or steering committee going is just the start, as many companies today are creating their own sustainability departments inside their organization. Similar to a green team the goal of a sustainability department is to make the company more sustainable – by restoring and conserving ecosystems, protecting communities, and creating a competitive profit. What makes a sustainability department unique, compared to any other department in an organization is that sustainability is not an isolated competency. Instead sustainability is related to and relies on every other part of the business.
- Clear accountability and ownership of sustainability within the company.
- Does not take away people from their main job responsibilities in the way a green team can.
- Tends to deliver the greatest financial return and business value of any of the options, as there is someone inside the business focusing on this every day.
- Demonstrates a clear company commitment to sustainability for employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
- Can be expensive for a company just starting out.
- May take away some of the avenues or opportunities for employees to participate that a green team provides; as ownership more firmly resides in the department.
- Can be challenging for an HR department to align and staff a new department.
Internal and External:
This option relies on a mix of internal employee support alongside outside help from consultants or other stakeholders.
All of the options we have looked at thus far focus on building internal support for sustainability within an organization, and that should always be the first step. Sometimes however companies will need some additional help at one point or another. Maybe a green team needs some help setting their sustainability vision or goals. Or a sustainability department needs help addressing a supply chain issue. Either way, it can be advisable to look for external support. This can be in a traditional form of a consulting partner, but can also be an industry organization, another company or business leader, a university or professor, or even an MBA student looking for an internship.
- Can create change or solve a problem quicker and more effectively than a green team or council
- Brings in outside skill sets that can complement an internal teams
- Potential to gain valuable insight from others (companies, academics, industry organizations, etc…) for free or very cheap
- Brings a neutral party to help facilitate internal discussions
- Mitigates risks from external stakeholders or activist groups
- Costs for consultants can be as much as a full-time employee.
- Finding the right partner(s) can be difficult and takes time to do correctly.
- Often times the external support will not be up to speed on your business so will often require education and data collection support from you.