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How to Set a Sustainability Agenda

SustainabilityPublished on May 3, 2021

Many organizations today know sustainability is the right thing to do — sooner versus later. The issue often lies in how and where to get started. Right now, you can probably identify so many areas of your company where sustainability initiatives could make a major difference. Yet lack of manpower, funds, or even just a clear roadmap of where to go and how to get there can paralyze businesses from taking that first step.

Many of the guests on our Business of Sustainability interview series talk about how they got started and offered tips and recommendations on what to do — even if the steps were small and the budgets were non-existent. Here are their recommendations for how to set a sustainability agenda.

1. How to identify potential need areas in your company. Tiila Abbitt, Founder & CEO of Aether Beauty urges, “Look at absolutely every aspect of your product if you want to be completely sustainable. Question everything that goes into both your product AND the packaging. While you might be focused on the ingredients which go into the product being safer, cleaner, greener, etc., most companies never look at their packaging through the same lens.”

2. Why A Benefits Corporation Might Be The Way To Go. Annie Agle, Senior Director, Corporate Social Responsibility at Cotopaxi, notes, “We were legally incorporated as a benefit corporation and I think more businesses should consider this incorporation strategy if they truly care about sustainability, human rights, and corporate social responsibility because it allows the company to prioritize people and planet above profit and value to shareholders. For a lot of larger multinational enterprises, and certainly publicly traded enterprises, it’s going to be an issue of what to prioritize. If you’re a very large company — a big fast fashion company — and you do want to prioritize sustainability, you do want to prioritize human rights in your supply chain (which means paying workers a living wage), you might not make the same kind of margin on a product that you’re used to. This is why it’s important to have the legal infrastructure as a company to prioritize sustainability. For us, it’s built into our legal structure, and in that way, it is truly built into our DNA and our morals. Our business was really founded as a sustainable means to alleviate poverty and historically, we have given literally as much away as we possibly could manage, of our profits, towards alleviating poverty. And then specifically with sustainability, where we really focus our efforts is on the supply chain. We really try to think innovatively when we design and try to be as sustainable as possible. So, a lot of our products are designed to eliminate waste by using fabric scraps that would otherwise end up in the landfill. When that’s not possible, we use repurposed materials in other ways, or recycled materials, or natural fibers so we really try to design to the problem rather than just sort of addressing it further downstream.”

3. External regulations often kick-off sustainability initiatives. Harshad Kanvinde, Practice lead – Strategy & Supply Chain, Slalom Consulting notes, “Over the last 10 years or so there is pressure from the consumer activation standpoint. Consumers are asking for sustainable products, which has resulted in several regulations demanding sustainable operations. Fifteen years ago, sustainability was just from the standpoint that we wanted to create some checkboxes to comply with certain regulations. But now there is a realization that my consumers are looking for sustainable products and circular economies which create less waste. This is playing much more of a role than just complying with certain regulations. And that changes then how you design the program internally and how you measure the success of those programs. For example, as I do better to reduce my transportation costs, that also helps the environment and helps my sustainability goals.”

4. Creating a strategic roadmap. Ryan Emmons, Co-Founder & CEO at Waiākea advises, “When you’re putting together a strategic roadmap, look at what are the big differentiators and it’s going to obviously vary per category or what business you’re doing and what business you’re in. For us, the rPET and the upcycle packaging was probably our first big initiative we did right off the bat, and the justification was that we could really command a premium because we saw a lot of demographic trends that were showing people were willing to pay a 51% premium for products that weren’t just shameless greenwashing. So that was a big part of it and then seeing how sustainability was going to become a much bigger factor in consumer packaged goods. The idea was that we could be known as the sustainable leader and that would obviously create more conversations with buyers because they are going to be reaching out for those products. Who are you going to think of? You’ll think of us.”

5. Deciding what to focus on. Julie Verdugo, Director of Sustainability + Social Impact at Free People notes, “We look at how our product impacts people. How it was made. Who’s making it. What their environment looks like. Ensuring that we’re proud of the way that we support them through making the product. And then all the way through to how it’s delivered, and our customer, and what our store experience looks like. A lot of the projects I’m working on now include getting our packaging up to where it could and should be which is no small feat working for a public company, but there are so many opportunities in innovation. So, exploring the innovations, talking to other grants, people, experts, coalitions to find the solutions and around the product as well and identifying opportunities for fabric innovations. Also, production innovations. How can we go a little bit smaller and partner with smaller partners as well. Circularity is another big thing I’m focusing on now so just sort of the full life cycle of the product. What happens after the consumer buys it as well. How do we start to design into the future of a product and then, that sort of finds its way to the social impact side of the humans that are our customers and our communities around where we do business, where we produce our things. So, it’s really working the full spectrum of the business and working internally with so many different teams and brains and functions.”

6. Defining sustainability initiatives across a large global company. Debra Vernon, Senior Director, Corporate Social Responsibility, Tyson Foods reports, “I am part of the Sustainability Leadership Team and because we’re such a large company, sustainability is divided into environment, sustainable food, animal well being and corporate social responsibility at Tyson and CSR acclimates with the health people community section of the sustainability strategy. We focus on social risk and challenges to our business. It’s really a very social risk perspective. And our mission if you really drill it down is to reduce insecurity and improve quality of life for our workforce and for our plant communities. Under CSR there’s several areas that I oversee. One is social investment. The other one is team member engagement. We also have team member social responsibility which are programs that are directed to our team members around education and stability. And then we also just added some workforce development capability. And then we look to partner across the business, so we are very deeply embedded with our operations group, with our HR group in terms of diversity. With our government affairs group in terms of community relations. So, we’re very much of a matrix team looking to support our operations across our footprint in those areas.”

7. What a sustainability practice looks like. Danielle Jezienicki, Director of Sustainability, at Grove Collaborative admits “I have one person on my team who is thankfully phenomenal at being super organized. We’ve been able to get things running really quickly and build out best measurements and make sure that our sustainability program has a robust way to validate all the claims that we’re making. For any sustainability practice, you’re always going to hear the same thing: small team, big responsibilities. The way it works is you have to have allies within the company. You have to base sustainability into the teams that you work with so that your goals are their goals and you’re working towards the same thing and that everyone is accountable to sustainability and has it integrated into their roles and responsibilities.

8. Conduct a materiality analysis at the outset. Katherine Pickus, Vice President of Global Sustainability at Griffith Foods recommends companies “Conduct analyses with internal stakeholders probing the answers to your concerns, expectations, contribution to society, risks, where there are opportunities to create or preserve value, and how you can build trust in those efforts. Also conduct one externally by talking to people to find out what their expectations are of you and how your organization meets those expectations through practices and partnerships. A materiality analysis identifies the issues you want to tackle, which then leads to a sustainability framework, and from there you can create a roadmap for sustainability with key goals and metrics to share with customers and suppliers. The end goal is to have a really robust sustainable value chain which goes upwards and downwards to share with customers and suppliers to map your environmental, social, and governance performance.”

9. Establish sustainability goals and measurement criteria. Christine Riley Miller, Global Director of Sustainability at Samsonite, reports “Our current strategy for the next six months is to work on measurement as it relates to sustainability. In order for us to measure our outcomes, we have to set goals, so we have established nine goals and our plan is to determine how we measure the progress toward achieving those global goals. We will look at things like products and packaging and mitigating the impact on the environment. How will we demonstrate that we are increasing the use of sustainable credentials? How are we defining that? How are we collecting data? What does it look like? It’s important to collectively look at your impact, measure it, and then work together to increase the use of sustainable materials across your products.”

10. How to measure sustainability efforts. Amy Blyth, Director, Program Development and Partnerships at Fair Trade USA shares, “Fair Trade USA utilizes an Impact Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Framework. It is a way to frame and explain and communicate what it is the program does and the outcomes we hope to see from the interventions we do. We assess what we are going to directly do and create outputs for medium-term and long-term outputs in communities, marketplace, and individuals. Based upon all of those different incomes, outcomes, etc., we assign indicators to them and determine if we are seeing the outputs we hoped to see and track the outcomes.” 

11. Incorporating sustainability into a business in many ways. Mia Davis, Director of Environmental and Social Responsibility at Credo Beauty shares “Companies will always be learning and growing and revisiting how to incorporate sustainability into their business and weave it through a variety of programs like looking at packaging, or composting, or carpools, designing stores to reduce waste, shipping, etc. Depending upon how a business is set up, it’s important to try to thread sustainability at the store level, HQ, manufacturing, vendors, partners, etc.

12. When you don’t have much money to invest in sustainability. Danika Padilla, the Director of Social Impact at Meow Wolf, shares “As a startup which is still trying to prove its business model — or any organization with limited budget — you simply can’t focus on initiatives which are costly. Focus on items which have low cost and high long-term impact.”

13. Assess your sustainability impact based on the things you can measure. Thomas Heckroth, Director of Strategic & Responsible Sourcing at Stitch Fix notes, “You manage what you measure. We are only going to be as good as the things that we’re measuring. We are monitoring factory performance consistently on a monthly basis. We monitor the amount of orders going to our top factories, the amount of product that includes sustainable attributes, sets of materials that are using more sustainable alternatives to conventional material, etc. We know sustainability is a journey and we’re still on that journey. It never really ends, so there is no finish line. But we’re trying to continue each day and take new steps and build on what we did yesterday.”

14. Sustainability practices will continue to adapt and grow. Wylie Robinson, Founder and CEO at Rumpl says, “We began with a commitment that all of the carbon emitted through the creation of our product is offset by Rumpl annually. Later we moved into the textiles to make our product — approximately 99% of the product is post-consumer recycled. Then we began participating with 1% for the Planet, so 1% of the revenue we generate from all of our products goes straight back to environmental nonprofits.” 

15. Setting priorities. Jane Franch, Director, Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability at Numi Organic Tea, counsels “There is so much to be done, it is such a challenge to sift through all the priorities and say ‘Where do we put our attention now?’ It has been a journey about listening to our partners and when we enter a tea sourcing relationship, we try to listen deeply and understand what is happening at this origin and what the challenges are. If we enter into a business relationship, what are the different things we each bring to the table? How can we leverage our position and be the voice of our consumers to have an ethically sourced, cleanly produced product? How can we bring that back to the place of origin to positively affect the lives of the people there? And often that is achieved by listening to what is actually needed in the situation and determining if it is the right kind of match. We employ deep listening to think through what the priorities are.”


Jennifer Wong

Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.
View more articles by Jennifer Wong