Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

Posted on: 9 October, 2023

If you want your sustainability initiatives to have a meaningful impact, your organisation’s environmental literacy can’t be siloed among individuals and departments.

For modern businesses, sustainability is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s an operational priority. Incoming generations of consumers and employees place greater emphasis on an organisation’s environmental practice than ever before – often even prioritising it above the price of an item or how well they’ll be paid by their employer.

There’s also increasing pressure on companies from regulatory bodies and governments to prove how sustainable they are beyond vague claims and empty promises. In the UK, the launch of the Green Claims Code now means organisations can find themselves on the receiving end of significant financial penalties for misrepresenting their environmental activities. As if that wasn’t enough, strict Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting requirements have made engaging with ethical and sustainable practices a non-negotiable for all corporations.

Clearly, there’s a business case for sustainability – particularly in industries like the built environment that have a significant influence on global warming and man-made emission levels. However, with the need for sustainability literacy and knowledge outpacing the supply of talent available in the marketplace, many businesses are finding their attempts to make sustainability a part of their operations ineffective.

Why sustainability initiatives often fall flat

Sustainability isn’t static – it’s an ever-evolving field of practical and theoretical applications. It’s impossible to be 100% literate on the state of sustainability, and understanding it requires more than keeping with the latest updates and developments. This can make explaining and implementing it across departments and disciplines extremely difficult.

Some of the biggest reasons sustainability initiatives fail include:

  • Corporate and stakeholder buy-in
  • Increased cost with no immediate guarantee of profit
  • Change management
  • Bottlenecks in knowledge
  • Shortage of required green skills

With the above mind, it’s not hard to see why many organisations fail to make a real, tangible impact with their initiatives. According to a survey of 2,000 EU and US decision makers, 82% would rather accept regulatory penalties than take on sustainability initiatives – despite most seeing it as a priority.

There’s also the fact that, for those organisations that do adopt environmental projects, the overwhelming majority struggle. One survey of over 300 businesses by Bain & Company found that 98% of sustainability initiatives fail to meet their objectives. While plenty of this is down to greenrinsing – modifying or resetting targets before they’ve been achieved to avoid being held accountable – these numbers still paint a worrying figure that will likely scare a lot of organisations from committing to sustainability initiatives.

However, with the aforementioned pressure from new generations of consumers and employees and increasing governmental legislation and regulation, the built environment sector can no longer afford to look away from the growing issue of sustainability.

For organisations that choose to take action, one of the biggest and most immediate obstacles they’re likely to encounter is trying to avoid creating sustainability silos.

Learn more: Why sustainability is in such high demand

What are sustainability silos?

Sustainability silos are formed when businesses prioritise hiring employees with sustainability credentials without seeking to embed this knowledge into the rest of the organisation. While the new hire(s) may have the literacy required to scale up an organisation’s environmental activities and practices, they’ll encounter challenges when attempting to apply this across different departments and the business as a whole.

Sustainability needs to be an interdisciplinary practice

If your sustainability ambitions are to be successful, your environmental knowledge and expertise can’t be reserved for one department. This can lead to an array of challenges, including:

1. Knowledge bottlenecks

Just as with any form of organisational transformation, sustainability knowledge shouldn’t be reserved to one department or individual if you want to ensure long-term success. In the event your sustainability leader or specialist left, where would that leave your business and environmental objectives? Having this expertise across multiple disciplines can help you ensure your initiatives are successful in the long-term.

Learn more: Building climate competency: how UCEM is leading the way in professional sustainability education

2. Sustainability blind spots

As an ever-changing field, sustainability is rarely – if ever – a cut-and-dry discussion. Without conversation, debate and the inclusion of different voices and opinions, sustainability leaders could make decisions that overlook other important perspectives and miss vital context. For instance, what if one sustainability initiative in procurement led to an increase in emissions from earlier in the supply chain?

3. Poor application across departments

Sustainability initiatives will have different implications and requirements for different teams and departments – it won’t mean the same thing for your IT team as it will your HR department, for instance. As such, it’s unrealistic to expect one individual or team to be able to articulate the intricacies of your sustainability efforts and distil them into the different day-to-day operations of multiple teams.

Instead, embedding this knowledge and literacy throughout your organisation allows individuals and teams to recognise how it applies to their own unique roles and responsibilities.

4. Poor buy-in from throughout the organisation

As with the above, sustainability needs to be understood across departments if your organisation is to embed it effectively into its operations. However, this doesn’t just mean educating people across different levels – it also means ensuring they understand its importance. Failing to connect our relationship with the environment in our daily lives and responsibilities is what holds back progress and commitment toward sustainability.

Learn more: What does sustainability mean to you? UCEM staff and students share their thoughts

Final thoughts

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation. Overcoming it successfully will require plenty of adaptation, but with consumers, employees and governments demanding more and more from businesses and professionals in the built environment sector, the risks of not prioritising sustainability are steadily rising.

Change starts from the top. If you want your sustainability initiatives to be successful where others fail and place yourself at the forefront of innovation, you need to embed sustainability literacy in positions of influence in your organisation and champion future leaders to enact change.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management