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Strategy vs. Projects: How to Make Sustainability Stick

For companies trying to become sustainable, it is often common to begin with the “quick-wins”— the short-term projects that you know you can achieve. There’s plenty of merit to that. Early and fast successes set a great tone for an organization’s sustainability efforts, and can encourage upper and middle management to support more.

Yet when too much focus is placed on easy, discrete projects, once those projects are completed, sustainability efforts can often come to a halt. There is a scrambling to figure out what projects should be selected next. And it is likely that the quick-wins selected required few resources, meaning that additional projects become increasingly costly (and therefore harder to get approved).

To avoid this pitfall, companies should be mindful from the start. Getting quick win projects done is fantastic, but there needs to be an overarching sustainability strategy. Before thinking about the changes that can be made at your organization — from switching to 100% recycled paper to replacing incandescent light bulbs — try to come up with a vision statement. What do you want sustainability to mean for your company? Do you want it to become associated with your brand, or are you simply looking to increase efficiency in the workplace? Once you have a clear direction, it is easier to find projects that fit for your company’s needs.

It is also important to pick short, medium, and long-term projects. Just focusing on the immediate future won’t guarantee a lasting impact. Only thinking about the long-term makes sustainability hard to get off the ground. By picking a mix, you are able to get short-term savings and momentum that will balance out the heavier costs and more challenging projects down the road.

For instance, if your company is looking to save on energy expenses, there are numerous cost-saving measures that can be implemented quickly, such as the consolidation of office printers, scanners, and copiers. The money saved in the short-term can be used to fund projects that may require more time, such as purchasing Energy Star rated appliances to replace inefficient models. Though it may be tempting to only implement the short-term project, coupling the two in the proposal stage makes it more likely that sustainability efforts will continue into the future.

Finally, and most importantly, sustainability efforts in an organization need to be looked at as more than project selection. While that is certainly an important part, what is going to have a staying power is the integration of sustainability into the company culture. Try to make sustainability an agenda item during regular meetings, so that no matter what there is a designated time to discuss the desired direction. And when projects are successfully implemented, be sure to communicate this to employees, tying successes back to the sustainability vision statement. That way sustainability efforts will seem like overarching strategy that employees can understand, instead of a disconnected set of projects.

Though at first it may seem difficult to include sustainability in major business discussions, once the culture is established, keeping the momentum going becomes second nature.

For more help, check out Sustrana’s issue assessment and project selector tools, which enable companies to identify opportunities that support the company’s specific sustainability vision.

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