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Straight talk with the CEO to get better sustainability results

The SSC Team December 3, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Sustainability decisions and reports are data-heavy. And not only that, sustainability data may be unfamiliar to many, including your own CEO.

One of the worst things a sustainability executive or sustainability consultant can do is jargon-speak and data-overload when presenting to corporate leadership.

“Too many executives overestimate the CEO’s understanding of, and desire for, detailed functional data. Many of the best CEOs are generalists who lack deep expertise in most functional areas,” writes Joel Trammell for Entrepreneur.

Remember that the CEO, and in many cases other executives, are relying on you – either as an consultant or as the in-house expert – to analyze the functional data and deliver your expert opinion on that data.

Here are Trammell’s three tips for turning down the data noise and turning up the sustainability signal to get better results:

  1. Keep the big picture in mind. Deliver “concise insight” into how a sustainability program is tracking on goals and how those goals are supporting the company’s overarching goals. Drop the details, and focus on impact.
  2. Focus on the future. When talking about a new sustainability program or report, focus on how the results of the report are going to affect the company’s future performance. Asking for an expensive LCA? Don’t dwell on the cost of the actual LCA assessment, instead frame the ask around how the LCA will “identify risk.” And, by identifying risk the LCA will give guidance on mitigating it, and the result will be long-term, low-risk operations in a more sustainable marketplace. Win!
  3. Ask for support when you need it. “Only the CEO can mitigate conflicts between departments and allocate resources where they are most needed,” said Trammell. This is especially important for sustainability executives, as we are trusted with advising and changing how other departments operate. Not everyone likes change. If you are feeling push back from purchasing on the new sustainable purchasing processes, directly provide guidance on how the CEO can proactively remove barriers in purchasing so he or she can see the positive results you promised from the program (Note: Don’t tattle. Keep it professional with clear action steps from the CEO).

By focusing on the big picture, the future, and framing how your role is working with and for other departments, you can keep your communication with the CEO focused and relevant.

Are you looking to pitch to company executives, but need to translate sustainability performance in a language that the C-suite understands? Let us know!  

Use the “8 Habits” of creative genius to shape your sustainability activities

The SSC Team November 24, 2015 Tags: , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Approaching sustainability shouldn't be 100 percent data, data, data driven.

Use these 8 Habits of the creative geniuses in our midst to help your organization build a sustainability team and sustainability programs that can help lead your company on the path to greener operations.

Creative minds:

1. Look for inspiration in unexpected places

If you’re looking to figure out how to take the first steps in sustainability, know that someone has likely gone before you. Most sustainability planners know about looking at industry best practices, but we focus more on peer benchmarking inside and outside of a client’s industry. Just because you work in the mining sector, doesn’t mean you can learn lessons from consumer products.

2. Make slow decisions

There are a million different options for addressing both environmental and social sustainability efforts. For each set of stakeholder groups, there are programs, policies, supply-chain choices, upstream/downstream evaluations, risks, rewards, and more. As a team, and as a company, it’s probably a good idea to take it slow to come up with a really, truly effective program.

3. Find internal motivation

Sustainability professionals often come with buckets of “passion” for doing our kind of work, so this one should be easy. Passion is a motivator, but make sure your sustainability professionals also have the skill set to get the job done.

4. Start from scratch

Ok, so doesn’t this contradict looking for inspiration in unexpected places? Not really. Starting from scratch is more of an exercise. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s use energy efficient lighting and LEED practices in our new headquarters building,” the team should spend time considering, “What is a headquarters?”

A free-flow exercise might generate discussion about work-from-home policies, investing in teleconferencing, and eventually result in a much smaller, more efficient “energy efficient, LEED certified” HQ.

5. Be willing to take risks

 “Training employees to be comfortable disagreeing with others and receptive to disagreement will create an atmosphere of innovation.” Creating a corporate value system that includes sustainability as an ingrained part of the culture will give employees the confidence they need to address disagreement or bring new ideas to the table. Lunchroom compost bin, anyone?

6. Always try new things

Because of the constantly changing nature of sustainability, this one isn’t hard. New regulations, scientific findings, and processes are always being published. However, if you’ve been stuck in a rut generating the same old sustainability report and waste audit these past few years, maybe it’s time to step it up. Take that risk and try something to really push your sustainability efforts to new gains.

7. Find connections between experiences

Sustainability is not a stand-alone effort focused on just reporting carbon reduction efforts or mitigating supply-chain risks. Sustainability can be found in all areas of your organization, and the world you operate in. From your built environment to your supply chain to your HR policies and everything in between, it is all connected, and the sustainability team should be seeking ways to become the system, not stand outside and report on it.

8. Be open to magic

But magic is about being open to new ideas. At SSC, this generally translates to “reading, a lot.” Wehave a suite of tools help our clients, but if we’re stuck thinking that our products and services “are what they are” then we won’t grow.

Your sustainability efforts should be the same. Read our blog, read business blogs, sustainability articles, research papers, case studies. You’ll start to see the connections and maybe The Great Idea Fairy will visit you!

Has your organization come up with an insanely creative way to be more sustainable? Let us know in the comments! 

Will the UK Modern Slavery Act do any good?

The SSC Team November 5, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Late last week, the UK Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act, a bill designed to require UK companies to report any steps they are taking to address and prevent human trafficking and modern slavery in their supply chains.

According to the Global Slavery Index, modern slavery is estimated to include more than 36 million people who work in conditions completely controlled by others. Most of these people are found deep in the supply chains of global corporations.

To comply with the Modern Slavery Act, it doesn’t mean a company will have to actually address human trafficking and modern slavery. A company simply has to report whether it has taken any steps to do so.

Therefore, if a corporation files a report indicating that it has taken no steps, it will still be in compliance with the law.

So, does this do us any good?

Overall, yes.

This act pushes corporations one step closer to connecting the process of reporting to the concrete steps of taking action.

We've seen this cause/effect hundreds of times as external pressure – supplier scorecards, stakeholder pressure, or legislation – pushes companies to report. The first report can be humbling, but the process of reporting opens up action steps, focus areas, and progress.

As companies file their first reports, some saying “no action taken.” We believe that their stakeholders will ask “why?” It is then that they will realize it is time to do an initial Social Audit, Supply Chain Analysis and/or Life Cycle Analysis.

A recent article in Huffington Post written by two CEOs speak to the effect of data:

"The vulnerability in our supply chains was in labour hire, specifically the recruitment of migrant workers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Social audits revealed that recruiters were stealing wages from workers through excessive recruitment fees and high interest loans, creating a situation of debt bondage. Upon learning of these terrible conditions, we took immediate action so that workers were paid back the fees they were owed, allowing them to earn a proper wage.”

The companies and the CEOs in question were performing social audits prior to the UK Modern Slavery Act, and were able to take action.

We believe that more companies will engage with auditors, and decisive action will be taken because of this new law.

So, yes, the Modern Slavery Act is going to do some good.  

Would stronger legislation and adoption in other countries, like the U.S., do even more good? Likely.

However, corporations can and should begin on this important work now. There is no need to wait for legislation to become a more socially and environmentally responsible organization.

Learn more about supply chain assessments and audits and how they can help your company create a system to uncover risks lurking in the supply chain. How have supply chain audits helped your organization uncover risk? Let us know in the comments!


Life Cycle Analysis can help you write a better ‘business continuity plan’

The SSC Team October 20, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Emergency planning is critical for a business to survive a natural disaster, political disaster, loss or incapacity of a key leader, or other catastrophe. However, it’s not an issue that most businesses want to talk about.

“Smart entrepreneurs, however, have a healthy fear of the unknown and regard it as a strong motivator to take action and protect both their businesses and the talented people who help them thrive,” writes Heather Ripley in a recent article from Entrepreneur.

Ripley outlines four key steps to develop a business-continuity plan for small business owners. The first step is identify potential disasters and their solutions.

Identifying disasters – the basics

Pinpointing common crises – car accidents, hurricanes, data loss, supply chain disruptions due to politics or weather events – are the basic first steps in continuity planning.

Going beyond the basics

We believe that performing a full product life cycle assessment will help businesses better identify potential disasters and their solutions.

Once you know where your raw materials come from, how they are harvested, your intermediate suppliers, the countries where those suppliers operate, the politics and climate of those countries, the modes of transportation in your supply chain, the demands and opinions of your customers, and the where and how your products are disposed, you’ll immediately be able to see where your risks are and how to plan to mitigate those in a crisis.

Even better, Life Cycle Assessment will help your business eliminate some risks well before a crisis begins. Maybe you will find value in setting up multiple suppliers in different geographic regions to decrease the effect of a typhoon or hurricane in one place. You could find that phasing out an ingredient in your product now, before that ingredient becomes a target for protest, may add a selling feature to the product, decrease risk, and decrease environmental impact. 

If you want to know more about how Life Cycle Assessments will help you identify and mitigate risks, contact us or check our LCA services page to give you an idea of how they can guide your sustainability-guided continuity planning. 

Trying to get a green light on your sustainability project? Become a mind-reader

The SSC Team October 8, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

We have worked a wide variety of with in-house sustainability teams – from one task leader to full departments. The size of the team, or its location in the org chart, have never been a problem.

As long as the company leadership and company values align with sustainability issues, our combined efforts result in real, meaningful progress on sustainability programs. 

However, when we’re trying to win a new client, or even work with our clients and help them persuade their own company leadership to take the next big step in a sustainability project, mind reading can go a lot farther than spreadsheets and case studies.

Telepathy might be a stretch, but using perception and doing a lot more listening than talking, might be the best ways to advance your cause, according to a recent Fast Company article, “Five ways to read someone’s mind.”

1. Start with generational differences

In most business settings, this refers a lot to communication strategies between, say, a Baby Boomer boss and a Millenial intern, but in sustainability planning, you have to consider how clients, co-workers or superiors view sustainability through the lens of how they were raised to view it.

Remember, the EPA was only formed in 1970. Your boss might remember when this happened, and have an opinion about it.

Try to have conversations about how decision makers view the entire issue of conservation, sustainability, government policy, and social responsibility to hone in on their current views, where they are most likely to take proactive steps, and….

2. What are their hot buttons

Everyone has a hot button. When trying to win support for a sustainability effort, doing all of the conversational research on generationaldifferences will help you identify hot buttons before they blow up.

Have conversations about where they believe the company is going and what risks it might face in the future, and then frame sustainability efforts as solutions to the risks the company might face. Then, listen, and listen some more.

3. Consider personalities

Once you’ve figured out a decision maker’s view on the issue, and how to best discuss it to avoid hot buttons, consider the individual’s personality.

How does he or she like to receive information? Lengthy reports? Case studies? Quick meetings? With a strategic plan? On a spreadsheet? During a casual lunch date?

The more you know your client, co-worker, or superior as a person the more you can persuade them of the value of your project in a format that you know is the most persuasive to them.

4. Look for nonverbal communication

You finally get time to present your case for creating a sustainability report for your company or client, but you see that the decision maker is distracted, checking their texts, or looking away. Stop wasting your time.

Instead, toss out the presentation and go back to Step 1.

Leaning in, eye contact, and bringing their own ideas to your presentation are a good sign that you’re going to get a “yes.”

5. Be a good listener

If you’ve prepared a great report on the positive impact of how performing a carbon footprint will help your company’s bottom line, but your CEO keeps interrupting you to ask about supply chain issues, pay attention.

Maybe you can win her over by making the case for doing a Life Cycle Analysis to kick off your larger effort of sustainable change.

If the tone of voice changes, an increase of sighs or (yawns!), or the conversation starts to turn emotional, step back.

Do you feel like you’ve hit a dead-end with your client or supervisor? Consider a one-on-one coaching session with our President, Jennifer Woofter, to talk about roadblocks, circling back, and proven ways to get your project back on the priority list.

Using Risk as a Lens for Sustainability Decision-Making

The SSC Team October 1, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Dispatch from SSC President Jennifer Woofter

I often tell clients that sustainability is not a stand-alone concepts, but a lens through which  companies can make good business decisions. It's another set of criteria, another flowchart of questions, that lead to optimal choices.

That said, sustainability is not a perfect lens in and of itself. Sure, there are sustainability concepts and frameworks (like materiality, zero waste, and The Natural Step) that aim to provide guidance on how to think about sustainability, and protocols on how to use sustainability to make decisions. But I find that it's often lackluster -- at the end of the materiality process, or the Natural Step "ABCD process" we often look around the table and say "okay, that seems reasonable, but what does it mean for ACTUAL planning for next quarter? And what does it tell us about changes needed for next year's budget?"

Here is where risk, and it's associated tools, comes in. By marrying traditional risk assessment, mitigation, and adaptation methodologies with sustainability concepts, we can start to answer questions like:

  • How likely is it that climate change is going to have a significant impact on our operations in the next three years?
  • How big of an impact is water scarcity going to be for our supply chain in the next decade?
  • How resilient is our business to labor unrest in Asia?
  • Of all the options for adapting to increasing sustainability regulation, which ones are likely to be the most effective?

There is SO MUCH WORK to be done at the intersection of sustainability and risk. It's really exciting work, and if you've done any reading on the subject lately, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

5 Ways to Benchmark Your Sustainability Performance

The SSC Team September 24, 2015 Tags: , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments
A dispatch from SSC President Jennifer Woofter As we work with clients to advance their sustainability journey, we're always looking for ways to slice and dice the information we gather. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the common ways we analyze an organization's performance:

Company Now vs. Company Then

How does the client's current performance compare against it's performance in the past (1 year ago, 5 years ago, etc.). This works best when we've been working with a client for a while and can judge how much progress has been made since our initial assessment.

Company vs. Industry Peers

We look at client performance against a representative peer group -- so for example, a midsize mining company would be compared against other midsize mining companies.

Company vs. Industry Leaders

We look at client performance against the sustainability leaders in the industry -- so we might compare a midsize mining client against the current mining constituents of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).

Company vs. Value Chain Partners

We look at the client's performance against its key upstream suppliers and downstream customers. This analysis provides great insight into risk mapping and alignment -- is the client paying attention to the things its customers care about?

Company vs Sustainability Standard

Comparing a client's sustainability performance against other external standards (ISO 14001, GRI, CDP, SASB, DJSI, etc.) is another way to spot omissions and mis-alignment. It can also help to spot the areas where the standards overlap -- where the client may get the most bang for the buck in closing a gap. What other ways to benchmark are we missing? Let us know in the comments!

RILA’s 2015 Retail Energy Management Report: 3 Takeaways

The SSC Team September 22, 2015 Tags: , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

Last week, we took a look at RILA’s Retail Sustainability Management Report, and today we’ll be looking at RILA’s Retail Energy Management Report.

Earlier this year, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) announced their brand new Retail Energy Management Maturity Matrix, which hopes to be a tool that will be used by retail executives, individual companies, and industry-wide to help companies focus on energy management. In September 2015, RILA released their Retail Energy Management Report that uses the matrix to analyze energy management initiatives from over 100,000 RILA member companies.

Taking the 23 dimensions related to energy management RILA has identified from six key sectors, the report looks at where the companies rank in terms of maturity: are they starting, just standard, excelling, leading, or at the next practice already. RILA presents their key findings from each dimension, then provides resources for companies to reach the next level, case studies to look over, and how to get involved on a greater scale.

Here are three observations that really stood out to us:

Dedicated energy management teams

At 85%, a large majority of the retailers surveyed indicated they have at least one fill time energy staff person, with the average company retaining about 3 full time staff members. Despite only 15% of respondents not having a full time energy management staffer, roughly 50% of the companies indicated that they use a third-party or consultant to help with their energy management. With energy management often linked to sustainability, less than 25% of the energy teams report to their company’s sustainability/CSR department, instead a lot of the energy teams report to either the Facilities or Real Estate departments.

Continuous energy management improvement

From 2014 to 2015, all dimensions except for five saw improvement in overall energy management. The sectors People & Tools and Energy Consuming Systems saw the biggest gains, with almost every dimension hitting the maturity level of “standard”. While there weren’t significant strides from last year (except for “Food Service”), the growth is still positive. As more robust energy teams and goals are put in place, there will hopefully be an increase in energy management maturity in the future.

No one has hit a plateau

And speaking of increasing energy management over the next couple of years, many retailers indicated that there are many new initiatives in place. RILA has even forecasted that many of these new initiatives, plans, and goals will help push many of the retailers to an average maturity level of “excelling”, with some companies reaching “leading” status. Even retailers that are currently at “leading” or “next practice” have indicated that more work is going to be done with energy management within their company.

Looking to start a new sustainability project but need to gain support? Find out ways to gain that support for your new project or idea here!

3 Observations from RILA’s Retail Sustainability Management Report

The SSC Team September 17, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

This past spring, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) announced their brand new Retail Sustainability Management Maturity Matrix, which hopes to be a tool that will be used by retail executives, individual companies, and industry-wide to help companies become more sustainable. Fast-forward to September 2015, and RILA just released their Retail Sustainability Management Report that uses that matrix to analyze sustainability initiatives from over 50,000 RILA member companies.

Taking the 27 dimensions related to sustainability management RILA has identified from seven key sectors, the report looks at where a lot of the companies rank: are they starting, just standard, excelling, leading, or at the next practice already. RILA presents their key findings from each dimension, then provides resources for companies to reach the next level, case studies to look over, and how to get involved on a greater scale.

Here are three observations that really stood out to us:

What comprises a retail-based sustainability team?

RILA offered a breakdown of how many retailer’s sustainability teams look like, and over 50% of those surveyed indicated that there is one person or no full time employee dedicated to sustainability (and a surprising 10% of companies have 10 or more people working on sustainability full time). Often times, the sustainability team will set the sustainability goals for the company, but almost a quarter of the retailers said they do not have sustainability goals. And in terms of budgeting for sustainability, almost 75% of companies said their budget either stayed the same or increased over the past year.

The leaders are well ahead of the pack

When looking at how the retailers did across all dimensions, it becomes apparent most companies are falling firmly in the "standard" category (or rather a 2 on a 1-5 scale). But the leading companies aren't just one or two steps higher, they are already at the "next practice" level (or a 5 on a 1-5 scale). Looking at all of the dimensions, over half the time the leading company was getting top marks - only in 4 dimensions was the leading retailer at the "excelling" level (or a 3 on a 1-5 scale). Leading companies obviously know what they're doing when it comes to sustainability, so now there needs to be an effort to get everyone else up to their level.

A shift to the supply chain

Overall, the supply chain section was one of the weakest, with many companies falling between the “starting” and “standard" category, but as retailers begin to solidify their internal sustainability, there is a growing focus on supply chain sustainability. Companies have started to engage suppliers about various sustainability issues, such as the need to reduce energy and water.

Looking to start a new sustainability project but need to gain support? Find out ways to gain that support for your new project or idea here!

How Sustainability Practitioners Should Give Feedback

The SSC Team September 15, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Enjoy this article from the SSC blog archives:

As consultants, it's our job to deliver feedback to our clients throughout the sustainability consulting engagement--and we've gotten pretty good at identifying, refining, and delivering news (both good and bad) about a company's "state of sustainability" and roadmap for action. But when we read the article, Don’t Sugarcoat Negative Feedback, in Harvard Business Review, we realized that the art of providing feedback has a much broader application to companies pursuing sustainability initiatives. Here are some of our takeaways:


Berglas: Deliver constructive feedback rapidly in its raw form. This doesn’t mean harshly; there’s a way to soften blows without delaying them if you strive to be empathic. Just never make it seem like you’re avoiding hard cold facts. All that does is make the facts seem worse than they are.

Focusing our feedback on facts is a great way to create some space between participants, so that no one feels blamed, guilty, or shamed. It also allows everyone to (more) objectively assess the situation--including whether the feedback being provided is correct, how a solution should be constructed, and how responsibility and accountability for change should be allocated.

Wrong: [After 20 minutes of praise and exultation about everyone's awesome sustainability work.] "Look, even though we're all doing our best, it's not enough. We're falling behind on our performance data, and that's shown up in some recent press. We can't let our industry leave us in the dust. Come on, guys, we've got to improve!"

Right: "Our three-year carbon emissions are up 4.3%, while Competitor A is holding steady and Competitor B actually decreased its emissions by 1.1%. A report, which is getting press coverage this week in the New York Times and a number of "green blogs", calls us out for poor energy and climate performance in our industry. Let's talk about what that means in light of last month's board meeting where there was consensus about aiming for the top 25% of our industry across all sustainability issues."


Berglas: Resist the urge to prophesy. The absolute worst thing a CEO, coach, or consultant can do when offering constructive criticism to someone is to provide a timetable for the process that a person who must change should be expected to conform to.

While goals and targets are critical elements of effective sustainability planning, changing people (and institutions) is an uncertain process. When you need to address employee engagement and organizational culture issues, don't make promises that you can't keep. Yes, you can get a new Code of Ethics in place by the end of the year, but can you put a clear time line on when your emerging-market suppliers are going to really *get* the concepts of anti-bribery and corruption? You can provide a clear road-map, but putting calendar dates down for personal and organizational change is a dangerous proposition.


Berglas: Don’t minimize the challenge. When you critique someone with a history of success you have to assume that the flaws you see in them are (a) entrenched, and, (b) something they have long grappled with to suppress or get past. Saying, “No big deal” to that sort of issue can scare the socks off someone who knows that what you’re targeting for change is an issue they have battled unsuccessfully for years.

Sustainability is probably the biggest, most complex challenge that the world has ever faced -- and individual organizations trying to navigate a highly interconnected system in which it has limited leverage and resources is not an easy task. (Hah, understatement!) So don't portray the journey as all rainbows and kittens. It's going to be hard, and there are going to be really tough decisions. People need to understand that the road is going to be long, and the challenges are going to be scary--but that all great, epic adventures start with a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb.

Looking to start a new sustainability project but need to gain support? Find out ways to gain that support for your new project or idea here!