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The Interchange Sustainability Forum

by Gabrielle Harris.
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Recently I facilitated a workshop for clients to discuss Corporate Sustainability Practices. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the outcomes and the discussion points.

Introduction

Following a discussion with a number of clients we decided to take a look at the maturity of sustainability approaches in Australian businesses today. It seemed timely as we approach the 30th anniversary of the Brundtland Report published in 1987. This was the report that gave us the oft-quoted definition of sustainability:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

We wondered what the maturity of Australian businesses and the lessons that had been learned over the intervening 30 years could tell our clients about effective sustainability strategy.

The purpose of the workshop was to share insights into sustainability strategy, actions and drivers. In particular the participants were challenged to reflect on this statement:

“Although many companies investigate sustainability management and publish sustainability reports, their main focus in this endeavor remains unclear. Often, it seems that sustainability issues are pursued more coincidentally than with a clear strategy.”

Sydney Airports Corporation – Sustainability

We were very privileged to have Penny Barker, Head of Sustainability at Sydney Airport Corporation open the workshop and discuss the key sustainability challenges of the airport industry generally and Sydney Airports specifically. Penny reflected on:

  1. A history of stand alone ‘sustainability’ actions
  2. Sydney Airports framework for sustainability governance
  3. A ‘way we work’ approach to bringing people together under the sustainability strategy– versus enforcing structural change
  4. Key aspects of the strategy – community, customer, safety & security, efficiency, people, responsible business practices and planning
  5. Investor drivers

It was noted by several workshop participants that the Sydney Airport context of small numbers of direct employees, large numbers of aviation businesses, contractors, tenants and visitors to their facilities was a unique and fascinating challenge for sustainability.

Regardless, Sydney Airport is paving the way and challenging norms around the definition and boundaries of sustainability. For example, whilst not sitting directly in Sydney Airports remit, by understanding the airlines public commitments such as reducing their carbon footprint, Sydney Airport identifies new ways of working with these customers to support these efforts.

Participants were divided into 3 mixed industry groups and asked to self-assess their sustainability maturity against the framework contained in the Baumgartner and Ebner paper*. This assessment was used to promote in-group discussion and whole of room dialogue. Importantly it was not intended to create objective measurement of sustainability maturity within the respective participant organisations.

Baumgartner & Ebner divide sustainability into three dimensions, each with an associated set of aspects.

Baumgartner and Ebner propose a four-tier maturity level, with associated definitions, for each aspect.

The tiers are:

1. Beginning

2. Elementary

3. Satisfying

4. Sophisticated / Outstanding.

Workshop participants were provided with the definitions for each tier and aspect. They then discussed and rated their own organisations performance and strategy with reference to each of those criteria.

*Rupert Baumgartner & Daniela Ebner, Corporate Sustainability Strategies: Sustainability Profiles and Maturity Levels. Sustainable Development 18, pp76-89 (2010)

Outcomes

  1. No organisation reported performance at sophisticated / outstanding for all aspects across all dimension.
  2. Construction businesses consistently self-assessed more highly than other businesses
  3. Where multiple individuals self-assessed the same organisation there was considerable debate about the ‘true’ level of maturity
  4. All organisations displayed some variability in the maturity levels across all aspects
  5. There was only one example of an organisation self-assessing as beginning in one aspect and sophisticated / outstanding in another
  6. Most organisations self-assessed within a two maturity levels band
  7. Across industry groups there was significant variability in the economic aspects maturity levels
  8. Ecological sustainability aspects were consistently rated higher than other aspects
  9. Significant variability between aspect maturity levels between industry sectors was observed
  10. All organisations rated sustainability reporting as either elementary or satisfying

Discussion

There are a number of implications from this discussion that executives with responsibility for sustainability should consider:

  1. Sustained high level performance across all aspects is difficult and may not be a strategically sensible aim
  2. Not all industries are at the same level and there is value from looking outside your own industry for information, guidance and support
  3. Building alignment on sustainability strategy, current performance and aims amongst key stakeholders both within and external to the organisation is important and often overlooked.
  4. Performance appears to move in bands – stepwise progression from one stage of maturity to another. This may lend weight to an approach that seeks to lift organisational maturity across multiple aspects rather than more singular focuses.
  5. The higher ratings associated with ecological aspects of sustainability was viewed by participants as reflective of the time over which this has been as an issue, the external focus on environmental performance and what most people consider is the core of sustainability. The implication is that strategies should seek to apply resources and educational effort to the economic and social dimensions of sustainability.
  6. The discussion surfaced a debate between participants regarding whether large organisations with multiple divisions should embrace a top down or a bottom up approach to sustainability strategy. Our strong view is that an appropriate strategy requires elements of both approaches

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