Avoiding sustainability vanity projects to show real business value

  • Posted on April 24, 2023
  • Estimated reading time 5 minutes
Avoid vanity sustainability

Successful companies rarely do anything ‘just because’, so what makes sustainability any different? Organizations are great about signaling their ESG intent but struggle to execute them because of challenges in business priorities and implementing change management. Let’s look at why some organizations fail to hit the ground running with their sustainability strategies, and how to approach ESG in the right way.

In a Sustainability report conduced with Quartz Creative we discovered that 38% of executives say their company is ‘very susceptible’ to greenwashing. Although organizations launch sustainability initiatives with the best intentions, the pressure is on to continue innovating and moving forward. When this happens, long-term strategies make way for quick-fire ideas – otherwise known as vanity projects.

A vanity project is sort of like greenwashing, where businesses don’t back up their environmental claims with stone-cold evidence. Sustainability initiatives often run the risk of being nothing more than ‘great marketing’. Without quantifying or qualifying the business impact and environmental value of your sustainability endeavors, every idea is just a flash in the pan with no longevity. Ideas enter vanity territory if your organization is doing something for the sake of it, rather than driving change through intent, value, and patience.

Maintaining a long-term vision is key to delivering real value
Those three little words – intent, value, and patience – really are central to sustainability success. It’s impossible to maintain a long-term vision without a motivation and inspiring why, whether you are investing in sustainability to care for the planet, to enhance your brand reputation, to assist your future goals, or others. Ultimately, your why will be unique to you. For B2C businesses, sustainability initiatives boost customer engagement. But B2B businesses are often part of a value chain and as a result affect scope three emissions, meaning you indirectly impact the emissions of your ecosystem partners. Therefore, partner stakeholders expect your business to meet sustainability benchmarks and demonstrate how you limit the use of resources across your IT infrastructure and operations, from small changes like green software practices to long-term goals. Cost is a big why, as well-thought-out sustainability initiatives can help cut operational and utility costs, enhance efficiencies, and reduce the use of resources and materials for production.

The challenge of balancing ambition with action
Regulatory and stakeholder pressure tends to cut through the noise and push businesses towards vanity projects as internal and external leaders understandably seek immediate rewards. Seeing value in your sustainability investments is a slow burner but setting goals for 2030 or 2050 can seem so far away that they appear irrelevant to today’s operational requirements.

Setting huge targets for the far future can be daunting and create inertia, and over-ambitious approaches do nothing more than overwhelm businesses and stakeholders before they’ve even gotten started. For sustainability leaders, convincing the C-Suite in the first place is a huge hurdle. When successful strategies depend on engagement across all business functions, your best bet is to eliminate the hype and present realistic and actionable targets.

ESG success and profitability: can you have your cake and eat it?
Our Sustainability report found that less than half of executives are confident they’ll hit their ESG targets on time, and as many as 45% are distracted by other business priorities. Although businesses recognize the importance of environmental, social, and corporate sustainability efforts, will they make the CFO happy?

Avoiding vanity projects means weaving sustainability and a genuine why through your culture, from top to bottom, and promoting positive change through new mindsets. If everyone in your business can eagerly take on some form of responsibility and change their perception that sustainability is a ‘nice-to-have’, ESG goals will become a ‘must-have’ for profitability.

While ESG strategies don’t need to be expensive (and this is a preconception that realistic strategies can help change), they also won’t deliver a linear return on investment, which can be off-putting to the CFO. Rather than attempting to substitute or prioritize ESG goals over other business outcomes, you can closely align sustainability with your broader business goals – they work hand-in-hand, not against one another. In the same way that you review the progress of your operational and financial goals, it’s completely okay to head back to the drawing board if ESG plans don’t unfold in the way you expect them to.

Slow and steady wins the race
Ultimately, we’re coming back around to the importance of those three key factors for avoiding vanity projects – meaningful intent, quantifiable value, and patience by looking through long- and short-term lenses. The five steps below outline what these pillars would look like in practice.

1. Diversity
It’s impossible to achieve the level of innovation required for meaningful change without enabling a broader type of thinking via diverse voices and people. If you embed inclusivity into your culture before anything else, you will benefit from advanced skillsets and complex perspectives that will help drive better business value and necessary ESG initiatives.

2. Building an ecosystem
No one business can achieve everything on their own – we’re not superhuman. That’s why it’s crucial to leverage an ecosystem approach and benefit from the expertise of your partners, who can help you accelerate business outcomes and profitability as well as achieving ESG ambitions.

3. Digitization
Our latest research found that 63% of executives say digital is ‘very important’ to their sustainability objectives, especially when it comes to long term investment. Technology like AI, data analytics, and the cloud can help you measure and quantify your existing usage, areas for improvement, and efficiencies, providing better visibility over the impact of your ESG strategies.

4. Small changes
Keep in mind that a little goes a long way, and doing what you can is much more effective than taking on too much and succumbing to a vanity project. Small changes like following green software principles, reducing utilities usage, and introducing recycling measures into your office(s) help your business play its part.

5. Celebrate milestones
Just because your ultimate goal (e.g., to become carbon neutral) ends in 2045 doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate success along the way. You’ll find it easier to communicate your progress to stakeholders and your clients by breaking down your accomplishments. The little wins keep morale high and help your business stay focused on the why.

To get started on your journey to ESG join us for a complimentary sustainability workshop and turn your ambitious goals into practical actions.

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