AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Sustainability Planning: Step by step

Copyright 2008 AXIS Performance Advisors

Sustainability Planning—Step by Step

by Marsha Willard & Darcy Hitchcock

Sust plng cover-smNOTE: This article is adapted from the forthcoming book: Hitchcock, D. and Willard, M. (2008). “The Step by Step Guide to Sustainability Planning.” London: Earthscan. It was first published by Kyoto Planet under the title “Planning for Sustainability First Requires a Plan”

It is now becoming standard practice for organizations to create a sustainability plan and report. Approximately 75 percent of the largest corporations currently utilize one and this trend is accelerating. Increasingly, investors, customers and regulators want tangible evidence that an organization is making genuine progress on important sustainability related issues.

Having something credible to report, however, requires more than a haphazard approach to your efforts. Without a well thought out sustainability plan, you may miss the best or most important opportunities and risk an accusation of window dressing your organization.

In its essence, a sustainability plan answers two basic questions:
Should we pursue sustainability, and if so, what does it mean we should do?

The steps that follow prescribe an approach for assuring your plan maps out a clear and justifiable course, while setting you up with the data and structure you need to credibly report on your efforts.

1. Establish the business case for pursuing sustainability. For your sustainability effort itself to be sustainable, you need to have a clear business reason for doing it. Pursuing sustainability because “it’s the right thing to do” may be enough to start your effort, but eventually you need to get to the place where sustainability is not just  nice to have, but core to your long-term success. At some point, your executives have to be able to explain – to themselves, their stakeholders and the employees – why this is worth the time, expense and effort. This part of the plan involves developing a cogent response to the following questions:

    • What about sustainability makes sense for us?
    • What pressures are pushing us to do it?
    • What opportunities does it present?
    • Are there certain issues within sustainability that are particularly relevant to us (e.g., climate change, e-waste, international labor standards)?
    • How does sustainability relate to other organizational initiatives (e.g., lean manufacturing, environmental management systems, product certification)?

2. Choose a sustainability framework (or create a hybrid) to help develop a vision for sustainability. Until you know where you’re going, it will be very difficult to get there! Once you have established the business case for pursuing sustainability, you need to create the vision of what a sustainable version of your organization will look like. It is important, then, to begin your initiative with the selection or creation of a framework that will define sustainability in meaningful and actionable terms, and will help you establish a shared vision of what you are trying to achieve. While there are dozens of frameworks, industry specific sets of principles, tools and check lists, we find that most of our clients settle on a definition that combines the Triple Bottom Line (economic, social and environmental considerations) with the system conditions of The Natural Step, which helps define social and environmental end points. Using these two frameworks help organizations answer the question, “What would we be doing (and not doing) if we were completely sustainable?”

Figure 1. Sample framework that defines sustainability




Maintain a profit margin of 6%Invest in projects and innovations that have a minimum of 24 months ROI

Align our marketing message and practices with our sustainability goals

Power all operations with renewable energy (system condition 1)Eliminate toxic chemicals from our processes (system condition 2)

Create “paperless” operations (system condition 3 primarily)

Assure all water that leaves our property is as clean as when it came onto our property (system condition 3)

Zero accidents, 80% employee satisfaction ratingTurnover rates 20% below industry standards

Donate 3% of profits in time or money to the community (system condition 4)

3. Conduct an impacts assessment to ascertain the gap between the current state and the vision. Once you’re clear about where you’re going, you need to take stock of how close or far you are from that vision. This taking stock, or impacts assessment, examines what you take from the environment and society, what you do with what you take, and what you contribute in the end (both good and bad) to the environment, society and your industry. Use the diagram below to facilitate this assessment, filling in each box with your major processes and materials and then examine the contents of each box in light of the chosen sustainability framework to identify where you’re out of step with your vision.

Figure 2. Impacts Assessment

4. Identify a set of metrics to define the fully sustainable end point, gather baseline data on your current state and begin tracking your progress. A robust set of metrics can be a powerful tool to focus attention and generate feedback. Metrics can help track your progress and celebrate successes. Of course, you can go overboard with metrics too. When developing your sustainability control panel, keep these tips in mind:

    • Ensure a balanced set of metrics. What gets measured does tend to get done, sometimes at the expense of things you forgot to measure. Be sure your set of metrics isn’t setting you up to trade one problem for another.
    • Measure at the right scale. If you set metrics on too small a scale, you encourage inappropriate competition where you may need cooperation. Alternatively, if you measure at too large a scale, people won’t feel they can affect the outcome. Life-cycle costing and activity-based costing can help allocate impacts down to a level that will make sense to employees.
    • Limit the number of metrics needing attention at any one time. People can’t pay attention to 20 metrics or goals, so narrowing down the metrics any one person has to achieve to a handful is a good idea. If you need more than a handful to assure a comprehensive approach to sustainability, then create indices of similar measures that can be disaggregated when necessary.
    • Combine leading and lagging metrics: Lagging metrics measure things in the past. Leading metrics help predict the future. Energy use is a lagging metric, but investment in energy conservation is a leading indicator.

5. Develop an implementation strategy and identify projects that will help reach the sustainable state. This step involves identifying, prioritizing, scheduling and strategizing your action steps to move toward your vision. Backcasting is a common approach for conducting this planning step. Begin with your vision and ask what it implies you will be doing (or not doing) in that future. Then work backwards over a 20-year time line, asking at four to five critical milestone points what you will need to be doing at that point (e.g., 15 years out, 10 years out, five years out, next year) in order to achieve the target for each succeeding milestone. This will begin to suggest action items. You can use criteria meaningful to your organization to prioritize these actions (e.g., priority to projects that have an 18-month ROI or are instructive to employees or customers).

Figure 3. Sample sustainability plan

Project plan


1 Year

3-5 Year

10 year

Long term

ENERGY/ CLIMATE Goal:Get baseline data on greenhouse gas emissions Goal: Reduce electricity & fuel consumption by 24% Goal:Reduce GHGs by 75% from baseline Goal:Be climate neutral
Actions:Gather data from utility bills

Conduct an employee commute survey

Gather data on fleet fuel use

Actions:Convert fleet to bio-diesel

Offer discounted bus passes

Actions:Construct new office building with renewable energy sources

6. Build the support systems necessary to achieve your plan. When you implement sustainability or any other corporate initiative, you need a way of setting priorities, monitoring progress and reviewing the overall success of the effort. This process is often referred to as a “management system.” Most management systems are built on the time-honored “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle. But however you structure it, your management system should both monitor and coordinate individual projects as well as the overall implementation of your whole sustainability program.

There’s too much at stake, both for your organization and the planet, to approach sustainability without a thoughtful plan of action. This six-step approach leaves you plenty of room to tailor your plan to your organization, while still assuring that all key considerations are addressed. Further, a comprehensive plan based on these steps will help assure that your energies are efficiently spent, your claims verifiable and your progress meaningful.


Sustainability planning and reporting are now standard practice. This book lays out a practical, well-tested, step-by-step approach to creating a sustainability plan and report.Each chapter has two vital sections. The first contains background reading, tips and case examples to help you be successful. The second presents a set of methods each with step-by-step instructions and a selection matrix to help choose the best methods. The book also contains sample worksheets and exercise materials that can be copied for organization-wide use. Click here for a more complete description.

Customers in the USA and Canada can order through Earthscan’s US affiliate, Stylus, 800 232-0223 Email: (When ordering through Stylus, indicate Source Code STEP8 to receive the book for the discounted price of $45.00 plus s/h. US orders only.)


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This entry was posted on August 3, 2013 by in Articles/Posts and tagged .

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