A couple of weeks back Colleen and I attended an IEMA workshop on developments in environmental and sustainability standards. A big part of it was about looking into the future and how sustainability standards and the role they play should continue to pan out. Throughout the workshop a divide emerged between the defenders of standards, who live in a world where the more options the better, and those that felt that new standards in themselves would serve to add confusion, not clarity, to the current landscape.
I sat at a table which included both consultants and industry. We were provided with a double sided page listing a range of standards. The list was long, covering everything from the GRI (sustainability reporting) to ISO 14001 (environmental management system) and the ETI Base Code (labour practices), and yet it was by no means exhaustive. Added to that was the debate as to whether certain standards referenced should even be called standards at all because they better resemble frameworks or checklists or guidelines. Take the ISO 26000 guidance on social responsibility, for example: it’s different from a standard, which ought to be certifiable. That is not to say anyone felt that ISO 26000 should become a certifiable standard, might I add!
Then, of course, within standards, we must distinguish between supposed content standards vs process standards (i.e. implementing a management system).
Not knowing quite where to begin with the discussion in our little group, we started off going around the table throwing out names of random standards that we had worked with. Not a particularly fruitful exercise in itself as every individual had familiarity or experience of working with different standards, but at least it got the ball rolling and, from it, more probing questions where we could better connect our understanding and experience started to come to light. One attendee working at an energy provider raised an interesting query: is there a standard for assisting with embedding behaviour change?
Again, different perspectives were shared on this point. Some said that the decision to implement a standard constituted a starting point for organisational behaviour change. To me, this is perhaps an example of where relying solely on a standard for one’s sustainability credentials is just not enough. You can’t go through a series of tick-box steps and come out with an organisation that lives and breathes a mentality, or, in other words, identifies itself with sustainability as one of its core values.
Given that it was an IEMA event, it was maybe only natural for the participants to be focused on environmental sustainability. Nonetheless, it struck me throughout the little awareness or concern for the growing importance of social sustainability and the bigger picture of how environmental challenges may only constitute one facet of an organisations material non-financial issues. However, most of us did agree on the clear disconnect between the operational and strategic aspects of an organisation. Many of us felt that the language of standards speaks to operational managers but it doesn’t usually gain the interest of the decision makers at the top. Often times, there is little relation between the standard of choice and the organisation’s broader strategic objectives. Moreover, there tends to be a lack of effective communication and effort to align the functional change that might or might not be happening on the ground with the overriding vision and culture. Something needs to change in the lexicon or there needs to be some sort of rebranding of existing standards to engage those working at the governance level of organisations.
Toning it down a few notches and bringing it back to the here and the now: from the participants representing industry, it was clear that organisations definitely need help in choosing the right standard. Objective guidelines to this effect, for people to navigate through the range of options effortlessly, could be really useful. Sometimes it’s not so much about choosing a single standard for the purposes of certification, but having a benchmark and identifying the elements of different frameworks that work best for your organisation and add value. This is how standards might be tailored to company culture and strategic objectives. Interestingly, there seemed to be a knowledge gap on how different frameworks could fit together to help embed sustainability both in day-to-day practice and as a value.
Overall, my sentiments were reaffirmed: achieving a standard is not the be all and end all to an organisation’s sustainability challengeS, particularly when it comes to transforming company culture. A certified standard can add credibility and improve processes, no doubt, but companies which just look to tick boxes are missing the mark, and an opportunity.