While many top companies are failing to see sustainability as a strategic issue, many others are successfully working together to achieve it. Many organisations can demonstrate that sustainability works, delivering bottom-line benefits, but it’s clear that this depends on everyone in the organisation understanding and accepting the policy.

Although sustainability is a popular buzzword, there’s still a lot of confusion about what it actually means. For many decision-makers and managers the scope and importance of sustainability is completely misunderstood and regularly relegated to some obscure tick-box buried in the CSR policy. On the other hand, those organisations that have built sustainability into their strategic plans – and there’s a significant number of major organisations that have done so – recognise that the benefits range from increased productivity, reduced costs, and investment opportunities, through to competitor advantage and employee retention and recruitment.

Creating a sustainability strategy

Sustainability is not a ‘nice-to-have’ idea, it’s a strategic imperative essential to survival and prosperity. It’s about making the best and most efficient use of resources: energy, materials, water, food; maximising recycling and minimising waste. It’s about controlling costs, and about being prepared for the consequences of climate change.

To ensure a sustainability strategy can succeed within any business, it’s important to elicit and maintain employee engagement, and HR professionals can play a vital role in educating the workforce. The sad fact is that unless there’s commitment from the CEO and the management team you won’t find it easy! Nevertheless, Human Resources is uniquely positioned to assist in both developing and maintaining sustainability policies, and plays a key role in ensuring that the implemented strategies are maintained consistently across the organisation. HR also has the important role of encouraging and motivating teams to follow a sustainable programme, and can be an essential channel to feed back on whether the policies are effective and are achieving the desired outcomes.

When introducing sustainable practices to an organisation, the first task should be to ensure the whole workforce understands the reasoning behind them, with a vision and strategy developed to define clear objectives – this is why it’s so important to have top-level endorsement from the outset. The vision and strategy will identify what introducing sustainable measures means for the company, why it’s important, and how it will affect future performance.

Cross-departmental collaboration and integration are vital in ensuring that all staff buy in to a business’s sustainability policy, and this helps ensure everyone works together as efficiently as possible – crucial for maintaining market position, a competitive edge and continuing employment.

Engaging employees

With sustainability as part of the organisation’s overall strategy, it becomes embedded in the corporate culture. Like any other business objective, it will translate into a range of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which will be reviewed at employee appraisals.

Some KPIs will be specific to individuals but others will rely on teamwork. In this situation introducing incentives is a good way to get employees engaged, and creating an ‘energy saving league table’, for example, pitting departments against each other for a nominal prize, could help save energy. Important – given that all but the smallest companies must report to the Energy Saving Opportunities Scheme by the end of 2015.

Targets for recycling, water consumption and material use will be tailored according to each type of organisation. Providing rewards, recognition and responsibility can not only deliver tangible and measurable business gains but also ensure team members remain committed and motivated.

Everyone’s office

Some employees will take more of an active interest in sustainability and providing them with the opportunity to make improvement suggestions is important, especially in terms of engaging with the whole workforce. Employee commitment is fundamental to maintaining the company’s sustainability strategy. Making every employee an advocate goes a long way towards ensuring the business achieves its objectives.

Monitoring the success of sustainable initiatives is a key element to control performance, and measuring progress in line with the objectives provides organisations with an idea of what’s working, and what’s not. The policy must be regularly reviewed and revised.  Keep employees engaged by showcasing success stories. Keep them informed and involved through ongoing interaction: discussions, planning, thought sharing and feedback.

Regardless of size, all organisations are accountable for their actions, and sustainable best practice must be integrated in day-to-day operations. In order to be effective, HR departments need to understand what sustainability means for their own organisations, and how to integrate it into their own business practices. HR is frequently the vital link in conveying the message across the workforce.