How To Overcome Barriers To Sustainability?

This article covers three barriers to sustainability and how to overcome them.


The barriers to sustainability are:

1.      Institution inertia

2.     Capital expenditure

3.     Perfect timing

These form common barriers to sustainability and are encountered by businesses across sectors and locations.

Choices are personal and value is highly subjective. The organisations who fail to overcome these barriers make a choice to see them as insurmountable. They don’t value sustainability, but this has more to do with the way they approach it.

The businesses that are succeeding on sustainability do so because they view overcoming these barriers as crucial to business success. They look for the opportunities that sustainability offers. Such as opportunities to engage their employees, connect with outside audiences and financial benefits.

They view corporate sustainability as being about more than just being less bad. That sort of message will never inspire mass audiences. When corporate sustainability becomes focussed on opportunity maximisation and building a better world it becomes inspirational and people rally around their cause.

Let’s turn to how to overcome these barriers to sustainability.

1.     Institution inertia

Institutional inertia is a common barrier to sustainability. It is defined as:

An organization will remain at rest or if already moving it will continue on the same path unless acted upon by another force. The larger the organization, the more force required.

A number of factors combine to make organisations rigid and resistant to change. These include factors such as excessively hierarchical structures, office politics and a culture that doesn’t celebrate experimentation and innovation.

However an excellent quotation by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper shreds the idea that the way an organisation is currently constituted is likely to be the best possible way. She recounts:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Grace Hopper is correct. Particularly with regards to sustainability, where many businesses are on a journey towards this goal, but with few businesses having achieved this status, things have to change.

If institutional inertia is the problem, the question is what is the solution?

The key is to provide employees with information. This is critical. Information is needed both of the nature of the problem and what individuals’ roles are in solving them.


The first part can be achieved through posters and internal reporting. Often if people are aware that certain behaviours have an excessively negative impact, they change their behaviour. But to do that, they need information in a clear and easy to understand format.

A great set of examples that I consult frequently is in the blog below:

Individual incentives

To really effect change on the scale that is needed, action is required to relate sustainability changes to individual actions.

An area that is emerging and that has the potential to transform sustainability at an organisational level is the linking of sustainability performance indicators to individual incentives.

This can be done by awarding prizes and benefits for departments or buildings that are performing strongly on sustainability. People are competitive. Particularly in highly charged business environments, people have a tendency to be highly competitive.

By linking sustainability to individual incentives, people have a reason to become engaged. This strategy offers leverage and the potential to accelerate sustainable change within organisations.

2.   Capital expenditure

Many businesses view capital expenditure as a barrier to sustainability.

Businesses that view capital expenditure as a barrier are looking at the sustainability equation the wrong way. Businesses that succeed in sustainability will be aware that success in this arena is a major point of competition between companies.

Increasingly customers and other stakeholders expect companies to be excelling in sustainability. By ignoring this area companies stand to lose out.

Sustainable solutions are often cheaper when lifecycle costs of use, maintenance and disposal are accounted for. Sustainable solutions are almost always cheaper when externalities are taken into consideration. Responsible businesses consider the externalities of their operations when investing.

Capital expenditure may also be necessary to keep hold of existing customers or to attract new environmentally aware consumers. This shouldn’t be seen as a cost at all, rather a necessity to compete in business in the 21st century.

3.   Perfect timing

Attempting to achieve perfect timing is another common barrier to sustainability within businesses.

Achieving perfect timing for sustainability is an impossible challenge. Sustainability is a fast moving area and technology continues to develop at a rapid pace.

The real question is do you want to be a responsible business? If the answer is yes, then the best time to start investing in sustainability and developing a sustainability strategy is now.

Your business will not develop a recognised position on sustainability overnight. Green consumers won’t evangelise about your brand immediately. Real and meaningful change takes time.

When thinking about sustainability, I like to think about the Henry Ford quotation:

A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.

What does your company or brand represent? What does it mean to work for your businesses? Sustainability is integral to these questions and more.

Sustainability is about building a better world. Many businesses and consumers are actively looking to shop and invest with sustainable businesses. If your businesses sustainability credentials aren’t up to shape, they will go elsewhere. The best time to start your sustainability journey is now.

What you need to know

This article looked at three barriers to sustainability and how businesses can overcome them.

The barriers to sustainability are:

1.      Institution inertia

2.     Capital expenditure

3.     Perfect timing

Institutional inertia can be overcome by delivering clear information to your employees and by aligning individual incentives with sustainability performance indicators. That should help to create a culture that celebrates sustainability and change.

Capital expenditure should never have become a barrier to sustainability. Nevertheless, it can be overcome by reframing sustainability from something which is nice to have, to something which is essential to business success.

Achieving perfect timing for sustainability is an impossible challenge. It should therefore not act as a barrier to action on sustainability. To attract environmentally aware customers and candidates to your business, your approach has to be authentic. That takes time. Therefore the best time to start bold action on sustainability is now.

With the right mind set, barriers to sustainability can be overcome. The trick is to focus on the opportunities that sustainability can deliver. This is an exciting time in the history of sustainability. What could be more exciting than being part of a movement to build a better world?

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. It’s great to hear about other people’s experiences in taking sustainability forward.

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