In the contemporary business landscape, sustainability is not merely an option, but rather an imperative. The collective understanding of investors, consumers, employees, and regulators has evolved to recognize that companies’ robust financial performance is predicated upon good governance that ensures the perpetuity of the foundational social and environmental assets that fuel strong returns. In response, business leaders are challenged by demands to maintain short-term profitability, while addressing the mid- and long-term viability of their organizations in the face of constrained resources.


However, value creation resulting from the transition to sustainability does not simply happen overnight. In The Sustainability Imperative, David Lubin and Daniel Esty describe their observations regarding four loosely defined stages of value creation beginning with a company’s focus on, “reducing cost, risks, and waste.” This tends to be followed by optimization of efficiencies in businesses existing functions, products, and processes. The third stage builds on the first two and taps into organizations’ core strategies to drive growth through the integration of new technologies and products. Many companies seek out sustainability as a source of competitive advantage, but it is typically not until organizations reach the fourth stage in this process that their capacity evolved sufficiently to develop new business models to differentiate their value proposition.  


“How do we change existing business practices to meet these demands?” 


From reducing carbon footprints to tracking resource use, there are many elements for any organization to successfully implement a plan to transition to a more sustainable future. In all cases, it requires a long-term commitment, a well-planned strategy, persistent execution, and targeted allocation of capital resources.  


While companies in the same industry may face common sustainability challenges, every business is unique — but one of the initial steps for all organizations is to develop a tailored sustainability plan. The plan establishes parameters for baseline sustainability performance, details business objectives, and defines overarching strategies. We’ve found that most organizations’ sustainability plans share several universal elements. 


Elements of a Sustainability Plan 

The following ten elements typically form the foundation of a successful sustainability plan. Depending on the industry and specific business circumstances of a company, additional elements will likely need to be added to augment sustainability efforts, but this group provides a core framework. 


Element 1: Leadership Commitment 

The highest levels of leadership within an organization display both an inward and outward-facing commitment to the sustainability strategy, including adequate allocation of resources. The principles of the strategy should be inherently linked to the company’s mission, vision, and values, and communicated effectively to shareholders, employees, partners, suppliers, and other key stakeholders. 


Element 2: Sustainability Assessments 

materialityThis element supports a company’s efforts to identify what sustainability-related risks and opportunities are material. A comprehensive sustainability assessment takes into account both traditional financial materiality as well as the expanded definition primarily arising from sustainability reporting known as impact materiality. This double materiality assessment serves as a strategic lens for leaders to use when allocating resources. Sustainability assessments can also establish baseline metrics and maintain accurate company-specific performance data. Sustainability performance should be measured continuously alongside traditional performance metrics to ensure sustainability is effectively and efficiently embedded across the company. 


Element 3: Stakeholder Engagement 

Engaging stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of an organization’s influence and impact fosters effective communication, improves risk mitigation, and leverages a more diverse base of knowledge and experience. This collaborative approach gives stakeholders agency, promotes trust, and develops relationships capable of supporting impactful initiatives and achieving more widespread success.


During this process, key stakeholders are clearly defined. They have traditionally included investors, vendors, regulators, consumers, employees, and the board, yet the addition of non-traditional stakeholders — such as suppliers, media, civil society organizations, trade groups, academia, and even competitors — can further enhance the benefits. 


Element 4: Sustainability Roadmap 

A Sustainability Roadmap establishes a company’s comprehensive sustainability policy and lays the groundwork for the sustainability strategy. The roadmap is a living document that should evolve with the company throughout the transition. The initial iteration should be sufficiently detailed to challenge every aspect of company operations, outlining the company goals, targets, and actions the company will utilize to progress towards more sustainable operations. It should include commitments across business units to integrate sustainability into business processes and needs to be updated regularly. 


Element 5: Sustainable Design & Operations Guidelines 

Providing clarity and consistency across multiple locations, Sustainable Design and Operations Guidelines have their roots in specifications, owner’s project requirements, and basis of design for new construction or renovation projects.


HVAC projectFor example, in recognition of a Net Zero Energy goal, such guidelines would contain specific performance requirements for all HVAC projects or renewable energy thresholds for energy sources. On the operational side, the guidelines establish standard procedures for facility operations, covering topics such as waste management, green cleaning, integrated pest management, and landscape maintenance. Implementation of these guidelines across all locations establishes a consistent framework for creating sustainable spaces, thus increasing efficiency company-wide, while improving the quality of the indoor environment. 


Element 6: Waste Reduction & Recycling 

The development of a comprehensive waste reduction and recycling program using the 9R circular economy framework (Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycle) must reimagine what is coming into and being generated by the company as waste to minimize the environmental footprint at both the company and project level.


At a minimum, this involves setting targets for waste diversion, implementing recycling initiatives, rethinking design options, reaching out to communities served to explore possibilities for reuse, and promoting sustainable waste management practices throughout the lifecycle of the value chain (from procurement procedures through product or service delivery). 


Element 7: Sustainable Procurement 

To prioritize purchasing sustainable and environmentally friendly products and materials, companies should establish procurement policies and track performance throughout the supply chain. The objective is to ensure the company’s entire value chain is aligned with the transition to more sustainable operations. This will, in turn, further support related elements of the company’s sustainability strategy. Element 3: Stakeholder Engagement plays a pivotal role in informing sustainable procurement. 


Element 8: Employee Engagement & Training 

Sustainability training empowers and educates employees with regards to their role in bringing a company’s sustainability commitment to fruition. A robust training program will facilitate a unified corporate approach to sustainability through a shared understanding of sustainable practices and will encourage employee participation in sustainability initiatives. Recognition and rewards related to the company’s sustainable behaviors and achievements also promote healthy internal competition and can increase the pace of the transition. 


Element 9: Monitoring & Reporting 

Establishing a reliable and verifiable monitoring and reporting system to track progress toward sustainability goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) provides management with a clear vision and improved risk management, while ensuring the Board has data to evaluate the implementation of the sustainability strategy. This will lead to more informed decision-making, improved data comparability, and enhanced reputation and trustworthiness.


GHG emissionsTransparent reporting on sustainability metrics can demonstrate alignment with national and international agreements, an understanding of the complexities of sustainability as a topic, and an appreciation of the need for authenticity in communicating results. When relevant to stakeholder interests, including regulators, reporting may either be required or companies may voluntarily disclose sustainability performance in line with established third-party reporting frameworks such as those managed by the ISSB and GRI Foundation. 


Element 10: Client Services  

Following the initial stages of a sustainability plan, a company’s own journey often inspires a renewed reflection of its own product and service offering. This is when companies have the opportunity to supercharge the value realized from their investments in sustainability as a strategy for business growth. In some instances, these sustainable offerings may be completely new, while in other cases, they may be alternatives to existing product lines. While the development of sustainable products and services may not be among the first steps a company takes, failure to do so over the long term is a risk to reputation and value proposition. 


Navigating the Development of a Sustainability Plan 

Navigating the path towards sustainability in business demands more than just good intentions; it requires a well-crafted, thoroughly deliberated plan. Each element — from the leadership commitment and stakeholder engagement to reporting and client services — is a vital building block contributing to the long-term process of implementing a sustainability plan. 


With company buy-in, ongoing sustainability efforts resulting in incremental improvements become the norm. Ultimately, this will help drive long-term business and develop the market resiliency that companies strive to achieve. 


One of the most useful initial steps of a sustainability plan is the development of a Sustainability Roadmap — it creates baseline ideas for the sustainability plan and is foundational to the development of a company’s unique sustainability strategy. We understand that the broad scope of a roadmap can be daunting for business leaders. That’s why we have created a streamlined roadmap service to facilitate the process. Learn about the ins and outs of our Sustainability Roadmap Service and how it can help you start your sustainability journey. 


What is a Sustainability Roadmap?