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Examining Five “Keys” to Unlocking a Successful Sustainability Program — First, You Must Align the Practice With Your Core Business Model

By John Friedman, Co-founder and Vice Chair of the Board, The Sustainable Business Network of Washington

The measure of success is not how well your business model supports sustainability objectives but rather how well your sustainability efforts support — and define — your business model.

The five "keys" that I have developed over the last fifteen years and have been teaching for about a decade are those elements that I believe are necessary to build a unlock the full potential of sustainability as a business-supporting strategy. They have been the basis for programs that I have recommended and implemented for companies ranging from multinational corporate giants to small not-for-profit organizations and those working to implement sustainability, including my work with the Sustainable Business Network of Washington ( They have been well received by a variety of audiences including business leaders, academics, students, philanthropic organizations, government representatives, and other opinion leaders.

They start with the understanding that sustainability — ensuring the long term viability of the company that is in keeping with the continued best-interests of the environment, society and economic viability – is more than a form of "strategic philanthropy" because when it is done effectively positions and advances a business economically while providing positive impacts to the social and environmental pillars as well. The keys follow a model for telling an effective story — answering the age-old questions of who, what, where, how and why. In many ways the "The New PR" — restores the true meaning of the phrase — relating to and with the public, rather than a narrower focus on sending messages through media relations.

The five keys to unlocking a successful sustainability program (in no particular order) are:

  • Alignment with your core business model (why)
  • Integration with day-to-day operations (how)
  • Employee Engagement and Empowerment (who)
  • Tangible (local) Benefits (where)
  • Maximize Stakeholder Engagement (what)

These keys to success will be discussed in future writings. Today, we take a look at the first one:

Aligning Sustainability with Your Core Business Model

Successful businesses are adept at determining market changes, trends and expectations. They cannot be in such a rush to embrace the "new" trend that they abandon their fundamental and core purposes.

For any program to be valuable to a business, it must further the goals of that company. Businesses must therefore be prudent when it comes to sustainability efforts, and not rush headlong into activities or partnerships that are not aligned with their long-term interests because that, quite simply, is bad business.

Start with your established business model and vision

Most companies develop long-term visions of their future, identifying their objectives, strategies and tactics that they believe will help them to achieve those visions. These provide the basis by which business leaders select, support and evaluate the company’s progress – and strategic managers use those established frameworks to build (not just to justify) their programs.

These visions provide an opportunity to determine which sustainability efforts are most compatible with the long-term goals of the company; which support financial, operations, sales and cultural objectives that the company has determined will define the future. By breaking the company business down into discrete phases — inputs, production, impacts, marketing/distribution and end of lifecycle (for products), it is possible to identify general areas for each of the three pillars of sustainability.

It is important to avoid the temptation to assume that the program must impact every strategy or tactic as this is unrealistic and does not offer any prioritization. Companies must reconcile their desire to be socially responsible with their need to run a successful business and therefore be prepared to collaborate with only with reasonable stakeholders that are supportive of their business model — whether they are individuals or organizations. At the same time, it can be a costly lesson to learn when it comes to engaging with stakeholder individuals and organizations that have a core purpose that is counter to the business.

When it appears that this element is being violated, it is understandable that the public would view the arrangement skeptically as either a failure of strategic thinking (allowing a Trojan horse into its corporate offices) or as appeasement in an attempt to defray criticism.

In contrast, the partnership that my team created between Lafarge North America and Habitat for Humanity International was (and remains) a natural fit. Lafarge’s business relies on the sale of cement, concrete, crushed stone and gypsum wallboard products. Making the linkage between these products "materials for building our world" and Habitat’s mission to provide "decent, affordable housing" supports the business by connecting the company’s products with their social impact — they build a better world.

It is important to recognize that a company need not be large or to make a huge commitment of resources and time. When an automobile dealer lends vehicles for a community parade or allows the graduating high school class to borrow a truck on which to build their float for the homecoming game, the company does just as effective a job at demonstrates its commitment to the community and the value of its products or services. When a sporting goods store donates team jerseys for the softball team — it does the same thing.

John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW). Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.

This is Part 3 in the blog series "The New PR," published on 3BL Media.

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