This is why your sustainability initiatives are failing

Posted on: 30 April, 2024

Sustainability is no longer a long-term aspiration for the built environment – it’s imperative for any business that wants to survive in the current economic landscape. 

Today’s customers and employees don’t just aspire to buy from or work for a company with sustainable values – they demand it. A PwC survey found that 77% of customers take an organisation’s environmental practices into account when making a purchase. What’s more, Deloitte found that 40% of Gen Z would consider switching jobs if they had concerns over the environmental activities of their employers. 

Sustainability is a key commercial driver, too. Green practices can have a knock-on effect on revenue, from driving down energy costs to improving customer retention and keeping businesses in line with potentially costly legislation.  

However, despite these clear benefits, many organisations are falling far short of their sustainability goals and ambitions, with some even choosing to ignore them all together. 

Businesses are ignoring sustainability – and paying the price 

According to research by Bain & Company, 98% of the 300 businesses surveyed had failed to meet the objectives set out in their sustainability initiatives. What’s more, many business leaders would rather avoid setting out sustainability initiatives altogether, with a survey by Software AG finding that 82% of the 2,000 decision makers it surveyed across the UK, EU and US would prefer to accept regulatory penalties. 

However, regulatory penalties aren’t the only price businesses are at risk of paying for ignoring sustainability. A lack of success in environmental initiatives is leading many firms to greenwash, with one survey finding that one in five UK businesses have admitted to publicly exaggerating their green credentials. If they’re found guilty of this or fall foul of guidance like the Green Claims Code, they could face even bigger fines, along with permanent damage to their reputation. 

8 reasons why sustainability initiatives fail 

With so many businesses willing to risk financial penalties to avoid taking on sustainability initiatives in the first place, what are some of the most common reasons so many of these activities fail?

1. Skills gaps

From digital competencies to leadership gaps and soft skills, the growth and acceleration of technology has led to a significant shortage of skills and knowledge that spans across multiple industries.  

Sustainability is no exception, with green skills pertaining to our ambitions for a net zero future of particular concern. In the UK for instance, we’re currently around 200,000 workers short of the 400,000 we need to complete our transition to green energy, while in countries like Japan, a rapidly aging workforce (and falling birthrates) are leaving industries like construction woefully short of talent. 

It’s not just technical green skills businesses need either. Along with the practical competencies and digital knowledge required to adopt new technologies and processes, we’re short of the soft skills and leadership abilities to manage and orchestrate change, which explains why so many sustainability plans fail to get off the ground. 

Learn more: The built environment needs sustainability leadership

2. Poor integration of technology and processes

Technology holds the key to making sustainability a reality. In the built environment, innovations like energy modelling, building information modelling (BIM), 3D printing and digital twins will play a pivotal role in minimising the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from a building throughout its entire lifespan.  

However, without the talent to utilise these innovations and the leadership to implement new tools and processes effectively, their impact will be severely limited. As such, while technology is crucial to success in sustainability, a cultural shift is equally important if businesses want to meet their objectives. 

Learn more: Technology will define the future of sustainability 

3. Siloed operations

Just as the implementation of technology needs to be managed, so does the implementation of sustainability expertise. 

A common issue many organisations encounter when trying to transform is the creation of knowledge silos – bottlenecks where skills, understanding or experience is restricted to small departments, teams or even individuals. In the context of sustainability, this often happens where a business hires a sole specialist, who will then find articulating knowledge and promoting change across various teams and functions to be a significant challenge. 

To have a better chance of seeing long-term change as a result of sustainability initiatives, businesses need to imbue an understanding of sustainability throughout their operations and departments. Context is crucial here – with so many different teams functioning in so many different practices, sustainability will mean different things (and have different implications) for each team. 

Learn more: Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

4. Lack of sustainability literacy

Sustainability isn’t static – every year new research and innovation evolves our understanding of the field. While this means it’s impossible to be 100% knowledgeable in this area, it takes more than just keeping up with the latest trends to make a sustainability initiative successful in an organisation. 

Hiring or upskilling individuals and teams with a foundation of theoretical knowledge and literacy on the intricate relationship between our natural and urban environments can help business translate these innovations concepts into a practical reality. These individuals will have the language to articulate a modern, nuanced understanding of sustainability to different departments, functions and management levels and successfully bring about change. Without this literacy, any organisation’s sustainability initiatives will meet barriers and be restricted to small pockets of innovation.  

Learn more: Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

5. Data collation challenges

Data is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to measuring and reporting on sustainability. It’s highly unlikely that different departments in a business are using the same measurements or frameworks in their reporting, given the different natures of their professions (and the subsequent variation in their environmental impact).  

However, finding a way to standardise data across these disparate functions and disciplines is another challenge altogether. These factors, coupled with teams operating in silos and the fact there’s so much data now available in this area, mean many organisations find their sustainability data to be unfinished, inconsistent and unsuitable for analysis.

6. Lack of engagement

The most ground-breaking and important initiative in the world can only have an impact if the people using it are onboard with its adoption. As it’s ultimately the end users who’ll need to learn new skills and change their existing processes, getting engagement and buy-in from the people most impacted by sustainability initiatives is one of the determining factors for success. 

Like any innovation, sustainability initiatives require careful and deliberate change management to ensure success. Ultimately, these employees need to be engaged throughout the process, and the benefits of any change need to be imparted to them in a way that reflects their goals, drivers and responsibilities. True sustainability requires input from all of an organisation’s functions and departments, so no stone should be left unturned.

7. Support from senior leadership

It’s not just the end-users on the ground who need to buy in to sustainability – it’s also the CEOs, CFOs and boardrooms who need to be swayed. These business leaders and decision makers have the control of the budget (and approval) to make sustainability happen, and without their backing and input, no sustainability initiative will ever achieve its ambitions. 

For every stakeholder affected by a new process or innovation (or whose buy-in is required from), an effective business case that defines benefits in terms they can understand should be presented. 

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act 

8. Greenrinsing

Businesses can’t expect to achieve their sustainability goals if they modify or reset them before they’ve actually accomplished anything.  

While sustainability is an evolving field, where new innovations and research can significantly shift our understanding of how it should be measured, many firms use the frequent modification of their goals and objectives to cover up a lack of progress. This is known as greenrinsing, and is an example of greenwashing that often impacts an organisation’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) targets. 

Learn more: What is greenwashing (and how can you spot it)?

The solution? Establish a foundation of sustainability knowledge 

There are a wide range of factors that hold back the vast majority of businesses from achieving their sustainability targets, but there’s one common denominator – culture.  

If an organisation really wants to make a difference in the battle against climate change, it needs to more than adopt the latest technologies – it needs to engage everyone, throughout all of its processes and operations. 

By imbuing a cross-departmental understanding of sustainability, businesses can create a culture that supports and engages in sustainability initiatives and deliver sustainable, long-term change.  

To meet demand from businesses in the built environment for soft skills, leadership and sustainability knowledge, UCEM have recently launched a Level 7 Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship 

In their studies, apprentices will explore the relationship between humanity, the environment and natural resources, and develop the language needed to article sustainability in modern, social and technological contexts. This, coupled with critical thinking and communication skills, will empower them to create compelling business cases, challenge misconceptions and emphasise the importance of sustainability in organisational decision making. 

To find out more, visit the apprenticeship page: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship