This article focusses on how organisations can institutionalise sustainability. Failing to do this is a key reason why organisations fail to fulfil their potential and become less sustainable than they could be.


When individuals fail to fulfil their potential, this is a tragedy. When organisations fail to achieve all that they possibly can, this is also a tragedy.

Sustainability is not so unique, although it does require change on a scale that may appear radical to those not familiar with the subject matter. Like any business idea or philosophy, it has to be embedded within the company to have a real impact and to have any chance of long term success.

It is for this reason that bolt-on sustainability strategies fail to achieve the level of transformation that is needed. Sustainability needs to be institutionalised within any organisation for it to be considered as a sustainability leader.

A Cambridge dictionary definition of institutionalise is:

to make something become part of a particular society, system, or organization”

I think it is a great word and it perfectly captures what needs to happen.

The climb up mount sustainability is long and winding. There are many challenges that need to be overcome, many processes that need to be reorganised or eliminated and a culture of sustainability needs to fostered and then embedded.

As tough as these challenges sound, with the right governance in place and board level buy in, all organisations can become more sustainable and some can become sustainability leaders.

Let’s look at the key ways you can institutionalise sustainability in your organisation.

1. Vision

All companies have vision statements. Many of these sound the same and are ridden with clichés and business buzzwords.

The hallmark of a sustainability leader is the successful integration of sustainability into their vision statement. Once you have done this sustainability becomes a focal point in the organisation and everyone can be clear that it is a top priority.

Obviously talk is cheap and this vision needs to be met with bold actions if the organisation is to become more sustainable socially and environmentally.

A good organisation in this regard is ARM, who I have mentioned before because I really like them.

They integrate aspects of sustainability into their vision statement, without dampening their commitment to business expansion.

“To create a world where all electronic products and services, based upon energy efficient technology from ARM, make life better for everyone”

Overall, having a mission statement that includes sustainability is a great way to institutionalise sustainability in any organisation.

2. Strategy

Aligning your strategy with sustainability is another key way to institutionalise sustainability.

This avoids the problem that many companies experience, whereby they have a primary business strategy and a bolt-on sustainability strategy. This leads to chronic underperformance in sustainability and a failure to capitalise on the opportunities which sustainability presents.

A great company who has aligned their business strategy and their sustainability strategy is Xerox. By redefining their role in the marketplace from seller of printing and copying machines to provider of printing and copying services, they have been able to perform strongly on sustainability and rewrite the rules of their market.

By retaining responsibility for the the equipment’s disposal, they can recycle and remanufacture old machines into new ones and customers don’t have to invest heavily in a machine only for it to be superseded by a superior model. Everyone wins.

Overall, to institutionalise sustainability it is important that it is integrated into the business strategy and not bolted on as an afterthought.

3. Rewards

Aligning an organisations rewards system can go a long way to institutionalising sustainability.

There is a lot of focus on rewards. This is predominantly concentrated on cash bonuses delivered to executives as a reward for performance. I have always been sceptical as to how much of a link there is between these two phenomena.

People do like money and people do perform for money. But to sustain peak performance over a long period of time, you have to inspire people.

I came across this great quotation from Robert B Shapiro, a former CEO of Monsanto.

People in large numbers won’t give their all for protracted periods of time – with a cost in their overall lives – for an abstraction called a corporation or an idea called profit. People can only give to people

People need to be rewarded by being allowed to engage in meaningful and interesting work. You trusted these people enough to hire them; you need to trust them to solve problems related to sustainability.

A great example in this regard is 3M. They introduced their pioneering pollution prevention pays (3P) program in 1975. This has been an incredibly successful corporate transformation programme, which is still in use today.

The initiative is made up of thousands of employee generated and employee owned projects that reduce pollution and save the business money.

The programme continues to be a success for this global company because it was successfully integrated into the businesses processes and corporate culture.

Overall, to institutionalise sustainability it is important to align rewards systems with more than just money. Passion and purpose can serve as valuable incentives.

4. Human Resources

It goes without saying that if you are hiring in house sustainability experts that they need to have a vision aligned with the principles of sustainable development.

But what about for other hires?

How often do you introduce sustainability principles into your interview questions?

How often does having an interest sustainability win out in a tie breaker between two equally talented prospective candidates?

Overall, if you never hire for sustainability, you can never become a sustainability leader. By introducing sustainability principles into your HR processes, you can make a big difference in institutionalising sustainability.

What you need to know

This article looked into how organisations can institutionalise sustainability.

An organisation that has institutionalised sustainability has fully integrated the principles of sustainable development and made it a part of its fabric.

We looked into some ways in which businesses can do this.

It can be achieved by integrating sustainability into the company’s vision. It can be achieved by incorporating sustainability into the company’s primary strategy. It can be achieved by aligning rewards systems and HR systems with sustainability principles.

Individually these are powerful methods for institutionalising sustainability, but if used in combination, they are even more powerful.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you believe is the best way to institutionalise sustainability within an organisation?

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