The FMI and GMA Global Sustainability Summit has been all about “uncovering the possibilities” but sometimes, implementing sustainable efforts can hit road bumps, especially when it comes to business. In today’s economy, competition is high and costs savings and ROI are top of mind, which can push sustainability ideas and initiatives to the wayside when it comes to the C-suite. In the interactive session “Making the Business Case for Sustainability,” led by Erin Billman, principal, and Julie Menter, manager, both of Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting, industry attendees shared ideas and strategies to make the case and get the green light for sustainability efforts.
The biggest take-away from the session was essentially, “be prepared and think ahead.” Be prepared to lay the right groundwork, develop the right content and conduct powerful enrollment.
“Many people go straight to content — it has a potential to fall flat if you don’t lay down the groundwork,” Billman said. “Don’t just think about ‘what is the next step?’ Think about your ultimate goal five or six steps down the road. Identify how you’re going to navigate that way.”
In laying the groundwork, it’s important to determine how you will reach who you want to influence by building relationships with people who influence them, be ready with an elevator pitch in case you run into them, and consider external intervention, such as getting an NGO or consultant involved.
“We heard at the sustainable food labs that several companies find it helpful to bring testimonials of what their competitors are doing to really light a fire,” Billman said. “Think about what resonates with your internal stakeholders.”
Another method includes learning journeys that Blu Skye calls “eat what you cook.”
Billman highlighted an instance with the head of a global food retailer, where the head of the produce and broader food group had so many competing priorities that when Blu Skye was looking to start some sustainable agriculture goals, it just wasn’t a topic that was on his radar.
“We took him out of the office and into the field and [to see] first-hand, the on-farm impacts that gave him the space to think about ‘oh, this is something important to my business, both from a heart perspective, as well as the mind in ensuring secure supply and those types of things,” Billman said. “So you can have the points on the paper [showing] that this is the value that comes from doing something here, but it’s a lot different than seeing it and experiencing it first hand, and that actually flipped him to [becoming] the biggest proponent of the initiative and strategy moving forward.
On developing the right content, it’s important to make sure you have the right vision, Billman adds.
“Make sure it’s simple and pithy,” she said, raising the question of how you’ll get their attention in the first few seconds. “If you can’t say it in one short sentence, refine it, [but at the same time], frame it as expansively as possible. Why is this something that needs to happen now?”
Many people go straight to content, which has a potential to fall flat if the groundwork isn’t laid down first, Billman said. “Don’t just think about ‘what is the next step?’ Think about your ultimate goal five or six steps down the road. Identify how you’re going to navigate that way.”
So now that you’ve made the case, now what?
“Unless you translate it into a tangible action, you’ll lose the momentum that you’ve had,” Billman pointed out.
Also think about what resonates with your internal stakeholders. The example Billman drew from was helping Wal-Mart with sustainable palm oil.
“This is a case where looking at the business analysis was a key part of the total work,” Billman said. “At first blush, it raised the cost,” Billman explained. “But we went back to the drawing board and we realized the portion of the total cost bar that is palm oil, because it’s such a trace commodity ingredient across a lot of different products, we picked the two or three products that had the most palm oil of any products across the portfolio and said what would be the price impact to that particular product. And because it was such a trace ingredient, it didn’t change the price of the product. So that is an example of [the fact] that there may be different ways to cut your analysis that is unique to your business’ situation that would enable you to make the case in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
On powerful enrollment, it’s important to think about meeting executives where they are.
“Put your shoes in the person’s role and what their reality is today, and the key underpinning of that is having trust-based relationships,” Billman said. “The fact is at the end of the day, our jobs are relationship-based jobs. Knowing what their priorities are key to knowing what you can be doing.”
Lastly, Billman emphasized the need to constantly refine and persist.
“The first time around is unlikely to be successful, but that just means it’s a learning opportunity to make it better the next time around, and so learning from those failures – I hesitate to even call them failures – I think, is a key part of being a pioneer, which is what your job oftentimes is,” she said. “And when you’re a pioneer, there isn’t necessarily a well-worn path in front of you.”