Building an Organizational Culture of Sustainability: Compliance to Commitment

tai-chi“Have To” vs “Want To”

We all know individuals who are committed to living sustainably, conscious of the impact their daily lives have on the environment. They may take public transport, bike, or walk wherever they can, rather than drive. Perhaps they recycled their bottles long before it became popular, or used their kitchen and garden waste to make compost. Like some people, there are companies that were ahead of the curve, openly calling out sustainability as an integral part of their mission – companies like Seventh Generation, The Body Shop, and Whole Foods.

Today, it’s no longer just these true believers who embrace sustainability. There is an ever-growing number of individuals and companies who take sustainability very seriously, even though they never started out with that conscious intention. How does that (rather dramatic) change come about?

It All Begins with Regulation

Embracing sustainability often starts out with compliance. For individuals, perhaps the municipal garbage company asks us to sort out garbage, then it becomes a habit that is easily justified. Or for companies, maybe they find themselves subject to new environmental regulations, and then find surprising benefits to compliance. For some, the change from compliance to commitment occurs by choice, while for others, the change never occurs, and just the minimum for compliance is ever done. What makes for the difference? Is this just a left/right, progressive/conservative, hippy/wall street kind of issue? If only the reason was so simple! The reality is much more complicated and nuanced. As change agents, we first need to understand the process of how compliance changes to commitment, before we can know how to facilitate and grow that transformation.

Believing We Can Make a Difference

Commitment to sustainability begins with awareness of our impact on the environment and sense that making a difference is possible. People who sense they can make a difference have what psychologists describe as an “internal locus of control”, a belief that they can have control over the things in their environment that they are capable of influencing. This is in contrast to those who have an external locus of control, believing that what they do can’t make a difference. This is not a black and white distinction, but a continuum. While a person’s locus of control is largely shaped by family upbringing and culture at large, a stronger internal locus of control can be developed if their circumstances are empowering.

In the workplace we can help people feel empowered by giving them the authority to make decisions on matters that influence their work, and access to the information they need to make informed decisions. Here’s where stakeholder engagement plays a key role. People also feel empowered when they have a sense of accomplishment in skillfully performing their tasks. This means providing them with the necessary education and training in sustainability to develop their skills and knowledge, giving them feedback on their progress and celebrating results.

Social Responsibility

People who are committed to sustainability are more likely to be values driven. They tend to hold a strong set of values that extends beyond their own self-interest to their community and the wider environment and they strive to act on these in the way they live their daily lives. They believe that business should be concerned with more than making a profit.  It should also be concerned with  managing resources responsibly, taking into account the social, environmental and economic costs and benefits to the larger community in which it’s embedded and the long term consequences of its actions.


In organizations we can find people who are at each end of the commitment – compliance continuum and all the way in between. The typical spread at the outset of pursuing sustainability as a strategic initiative is 15% who are already committed, 15% who are doubters, and 70% who are waiting to see how the other two groups will react, and follow whichever group tends to be most successful.

What can you do as a change agent to increase commitment and establish a culture of sustainability? The first step is to evaluate your organization, starting with senior leaders and then each group on the organizational chart, in terms of their current level of understanding and support for sustainability. It’s usually not hard for change agents to figure out who, at a high level, the champions and doubters are. And where you don’t know — you can tap into your network in the organization to find out. At the senior leadership level, you will need to probe carefully to fully understand what’s behind their position, so that you can fully leverage their support or address their doubts.

The Role of Leadership

Commitment at the senior leadership level is crucial to building commitment throughout the organization. If this exists, these executives will serve as your sustainability sponsors or champions. You can support them in this role by coaching them to communicate their vision and goals for sustainability, celebrate important milestones and publicize the results of their sustainability initiatives throughout their organization. Involve them in education /awareness sessions. Use them as speakers and representatives to external groups. Feature them in company publications. Keep them very visible. Since a key element in their communications will be the business case for sustainability, make sure that it is robust and compelling to each of their key stakeholder groups.

If commitment at the senior level is absent or weak, it’s often because a sufficiently compelling business case has not been developed – one that speaks to the strategic opportunity for growth that sustainability can offer, with financial, tangible benefits identified. Or maybe a business case has been developed, but the stakeholders are not fully aware of it. In making your initial assessment of commitment among senior leadership be sure to find out what underlies their level of commitment – is it a question of values, awareness/understanding of sustainability, the business case, or other concerns that must be addressed? For supporters and doubters alike, the next step will be to create a strategy appropriate to each group to develop and strengthen their commitment.

While the commitment and energy demonstrated by leader goes a long way in successfully embedding sustainability, it is also imperative that the motivation and engagement of the workforce at large. Look out for our next blogs in the TriplePundit FairRidge Group series on this topic.


FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge Group brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.

Anna Ewins is a FairRidge Group Affiliate, and founding partner of Ewins & Winby. They deliver comprehensive organizational readiness and commitment building solutions to clients who are implementing business transformation requiring strategic change. Anna’s clients have included Chevron, Blue Shield, HP, Sun and Stanford University. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (Organizational) from Saybrook Institute, and a B.Sc. in Life Sciences from Aberdeen University.

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About FairRidge FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation. Because of our deep business experience, we address sustainability in a way that focuses on real business needs and drivers, not passing trends or fads. Our goal is to use this unique perspective to deliver our clients the best combination of business and sustainability expertise for their particular situation. Through the domain specialists in our Expert Network, FairRidge can easily tailor our team to fit client needs. Our sustainability services are available on both a project-specific and ongoing subscription basis. Learn More About Us Here

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