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Cultural transformation: What Sustainability can learn from Safety

Cultural transformation: What Sustainability can learn from Safety

  • Posted:
  • Category:Thought Leadership
  • Offering:Strategy
  • Industry:ESG

Sustainability has become an essential part of doing business, reaching a level of strategic imperative inconceivable even a decade ago.

The question has shifted from the ‘why’ into the ‘how’ of embedding sustainability into business operations.

One solution is to develop a strong culture of sustainability, where sustainability is not ‘someone else’s job’. Instead, every employee embeds sustainability into their daily decisions and activities.

But what does this process entail, and how does it deliver results? Many lessons for the sustainability era can be learned by considering how organisations prioritised their Safety culture, and how this change came about.

How safety evolved

Over recent decades, as a business function, safety has undergone an incredible transformation.
It’s evolved from a siloed business department, into a standalone and business critical organisational value, embedded into the workplace.

The driver for this evolution came from the introduction of more stringent regulation and accountability, and an increasingly clear business case for prioritisation.

One of the earliest examples of this occurred in DuPont, a large chemical company. They were early to prove how a safety culture, with a common goal of zero workplace injuries, contributed to larger organisational success.

Dupont discovered when employees were empowered to put safety above profitability without fear of reprisal, the organisation not only reduces injury rates, it also generated long term value creation through better quality outputs, higher productivity, lower attrition, and increased profitability.

The strong results led them to embed safety into their organisational management philosophies.

Nowadays, it is common for organisations, particularly those in high-risk sectors like construction, mining and healthcare, to have safety as a business priority. Significant money and resources are allocated to reduce safety risk and to turn it into a value that is embedded in every level of the workforce; one that inspires awareness and accountability, and one whose performance is monitored, benchmarked, and measured. 

Why sustainability is on a similar trajectory

The ‘safety’ shift was partly driven by regulation changes such as the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 , reminiscent of what is currently occurring with sustainability, with fast accelerating investment, accountability, and regulatory changes underway.

As with safety, organisations are also realising it’s in their self-interest from a risk perspective to prioritise sustainability management and doing so will generate value and profitability. Those most progressed on the journey have discovered that, like safety, a cultural transformation is required to obtain the full benefits.

Achieving cultural transformation

While achieving this cultural change is no easy feat and depends on the context the business is operating in, there are best practice guiding principles that businesses can follow. Safety is an excellent example of how to successfully apply these principles to drive cultural change from the inside out.

These principles include:

Strong leadership and governance: Leaders need to set a compelling vision for sustainability within their business. Ideally, sustainability should be established as a key value, with policies, systems, and decision-making processes to reinforce its role in the operating model, complete goals and metrics for success.

Strategic communication: Employees need to understand what sustainability means to the organisation, and how they are expected to be involved with policies and goals. Communication needs to be regular, consistent, and across different channels.

Ongoing education and training: Employees require a base understanding of the moral imperative and business case for sustainability. Regular training will help them understand what is relevant to their role, what ‘good’ looks like, and how their actions can bring that to life.

Clear ownership: Creating culture starts from the ground up. To truly engage employees, they must be involved in the process and feel a sense of empowerment and ownership over initiatives. This is also a useful to spark innovation and co-create sustainable practices, products, and services with employees.

Celebrate success: Celebrating the achievements of departments and individuals maintains motivation. This can come in the form of recognition, and even incentive and bonus schemes.

As with the safety function over recent decades, forces have converged to elevate sustainability from a peripheral activity to a key strategic and operating model concern for businesses.

An essential element is how it is embedded into the organisational culture, something many businesses have successfully achieved with safety by following a number of best practice principles. By applying a similar approach to sustainability, organisations can more effectively bring their team along their sustainability journey, integrate sustainability into employees’ daily decisions and norms, and ultimately achieve their sustainability goals.

Are you looking to improve your organisation’s approach to sustainability? Contact our Sustainability and ESG experts today.

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