In my opinion: sustainability leadership – understanding the wicked problem and where to focus

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By Graeme Hamlet – senior principal, REPL Group, part of Accenture

Hamlet: there are a multitude of opportunities to make positive changes

We can probably all name great leaders that we aspire to emulate, the people we read about, listen to, or – if we’re lucky – work alongside. But what is it that makes them great leaders? It might be their ability to capture a crowd (JFK) or how much money they make (Elon Musk). It could be the size of their impact on the world (Bill Gates) or their cool head in a crisis (Jacinda Ardern).

When it comes to what makes a great sustainability leader, do these same traits apply? Or are there a whole set of different qualities required? It’s a question that’s brilliantly explored in this paper from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), which describes how sustainability leadership is often a unique blend of styles and approaches. 

CISL summarises: ‘Sustainability leaders are…compelled to make a difference by deepening their awareness of themselves in relation to the world around them. In doing so, they adopt new ways of seeing, thinking and interacting that result in innovative, sustainable solutions…and inspire and support action towards a better world.’

At first, it’s a description that might feel a little intangible. So how can we relate the concept to our day job?  

The first thing to say is that no single person can help solve sustainability alone. The secret instead is to understand not only our own, but also our organisation’s sphere of influence. This comes from gaining an understanding and awareness of Earth’s systems pressures and trends, the associated sustainability challenges and the complex interconnectivity between them. Then by relating these to the five capitals of sustainability we can select the most appropriate tools and approaches available to bring about positive change in these areas.

For REPL and retailers there are a multitude of opportunities to make positive changes – increased transparency on production and consumption, reduced waste and emissions, improved working conditions and greater learning & development opportunities to name a few, technology is also a key enabler….

Retail technology and sustainability

We already know that investing in workforce management (WFM), in-store technology (IST) and supply chains can reduce cost, increase revenue and save time. But if we think beyond these established and largely economic benefits, we can identify how these technologies can also support sustainability more broadly. Particularly when we look at it through the lens of those five capitals of sustainability. 

Take WFM. Tools are already used by retailers here to improve data accuracy and reduce salary calculation errors. But these same tools can also help create greater employee trust and wellbeing. More transparent, enhanced shift patterns can highlight opportunities for more flexible hours or additional shifts, for instance. Performance metrics can help better highlight opportunities elsewhere in the business that might be a good fit. 

With these systems in place, colleagues will be naturally more engaged and satisfied at work. Plus, this has a positive impact on retention and recruitment which in turn further benefits the financial capital of an organisation. 

If we move onto supply chains, these same multifaceted benefits apply. The right technology can help reduce waste and emissions throughout the supply chain. It can also enable a switch to greener transport and more eco-friendly packaging. All with clear environmental benefits. 

But it can also facilitate new social structures as companies create new partnerships with suppliers, be that recycling organisations or redistribution charities that can donate surplus to community groups. For one, improved data visibility can enhance transparency and trust between any such partnerships, expediting progress toward shared ethical and environmental goals.  

Then there is in-store technology. It’s well understood already that technology can help boost the social capital of a business by increasing and improving its engagement with its customers. But perhaps less appreciated is how enhancements to the user experience can also boost the wellbeing and human capital of a workforce, as the right tools can lessen or remove operational bugbears. Plus, these same technologies commonly have digital components which can reduce the consumption of raw materials and associated waste.

Data science is a key enabler to unlocking sustainability benefits across a business. This interdisciplinary field can help identify new ways to link data in order to bring greater transparency to business operations and support sustainable decision making, as well as reporting across all five of the capitals.

Finally, not only can technology help design and create a more sustainable product, but it can also help create more sustainable project delivery processes. The right software can enable online collaboration between different departments in the early stages of ideation, for instance, reducing the need for travel. It can even be used to plan virtual alternatives to launch events, sampling or press engagement. 

In summary 

No single person can help solve sustainability alone. After all, there’s a reason that it has earned its ‘wicked problem’ status. But by pinpointing how it relates to their own spheres of influence, empowered sustainability leaders at each level of the business can leverage technology and have positive impacts on people, profit and planet. 

At REPL we can bring our extensive knowledge of retail, supply chain, CX, WFM and data science to help businesses leverage technology to enable that change.