Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

8 Mindset Shifts To Up Your Sustainability Game, From Business Leaders Who Know

End your week on a high note with powerful insights from conscious leaders that delve into the "why" and "how" behind responsible and sustainable business.
By Mary Mazzoni
conscious leaders share insights at 3BL Forum

For decades, the private sector has operated under the premise of profit first. As consumers, investors, employees and other stakeholders increasingly expect business to operate with a higher purpose, many leaders are wading into uncharted waters. Navigating the sustainability seas successfully requires mindset shifts that change the way we approach our operations, supply chains and cultures. At the 2019 3BL Forum, conscious leaders shared powerful insights to help you shift your thinking and become a purpose pro. 

Know your strengths—and partner to address your weaknesses 

No one can be all things to all people. Every organization—from nonprofits and startups to major multinationals—has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Your teams' unique core competencies are what make your organization great, but identifying areas where you need help—and asking for it—can help you become even better, says Dan Keim, director of humanitarian logistics for the UPS Foundation. 

"Be engaged" in the way your teams function, he advised at the 3BL Forum. "Know what your organization does well, and look for others to collaborate with and partner with in those areas that you may need more support." 

When you champion sustainability in the C-suite, speak in their language

"We in the sustainability community have long used our own language, buzzwords and jargon when trying to communicate internally with executives," Lawrence Heim, managing director of  the conflict minerals and sustainability advisory Elm Sustainability Partners, said at the Forum. "That’s great, except for the fact that not all of the executives necessarily understand what we’re saying." 

"One thing we need to do as sustainability, ESG and CSR professionals internally is talk in their language," he continued. "We need to adapt to them. We don’t need to try to force the executives to change. They will eventually, but in order to build that credibility within the organization, we have to begin the conversation with their terms." 

If you're going to talk the inclusion talk, make sure you walk the inclusion walk

The seemingly endless string of offensive fashion pieces released earlier this year made it painfully clear how many brands don't have a single person of color on their design or leadership teams. 

At the 3BL Forum, Leslie Short, CEO and president of the diversity and inclusion collective The Cavu Group, dug into how that's even possible in 2019 and what brands can do about it. 

Short's refrain over two days at the Forum was: "Nothing about us without us," which simply means that brands—or anyone else, for that matter—shouldn't make decisions that pertain to a certain stakeholder group without consulting people from that group first. And it's not as simple as having a person at the table—even if that person is a chief D&I officer. 

"Inclusion does not mean I’m sitting in that room. Have you actually spoken to me in the room? We really need to look at a company’s intent when it says that," Short said. "Everyone wants to say they have a chief diversity and inclusion officer. But what is that person doing? What is his or her purpose? Culture is not something we just speak about. It’s something you need to create."

The secret all conscious leaders know: Failure is your friend

Taking a public stance—whether it's a bold environmental goal or alignment with a social cause—can be nerve-wracking at first. Most of us fear falling short or looking silly, but really, these fears are unfounded, says Mercedes Escala, director of corporate citizenship initiatives at IBM. Your stakeholders, particularly your employees, know your company isn't perfect—and they're more likely to respect you if you aim high and fall short than if you sit on your hands and do nothing. 

"It's okay to try something that ultimately doesn’t work," Escala said this week. "As our employees see us being willing to fail and to iterate, they're even more likely to amplify in our voice and believe in us because they feel proud of what we are all doing." 

Invite people to be a part of your purpose activations

We heard consistently at the Forum that today's consumers and employees, particularly young people, don't just want to read about your social or environmental stance—they want to be a part of it. 

"If you’re talking about an issue, it’s important to not only talk about what it means to your company, but also how it affects other people and why the company is addressing the issue," said Wesley Gee, director of sustainability for the Works Design Communications. "And the even better way of doing it is to bring other people into the fold and make them a part of that discussion rather than the perception of companies beating their chests." 

Vulnerability is a good thing 

As Nandika Madgavkar, senior director of CECP's Strategic Investor Initiative, said at the Forum: "If companies don’t tell their story, someone else will tell it for them—and it’s not going to be pretty." 

Cecily Joseph, who spent over a decade leading corporate responsibility and D&I efforts at Symantec before becoming chair of the youth mobilization nonprofit Net Impact, elaborates: "I encourage everyone to tell your company’s story and to do it from a place of feeling vulnerable and striving for continuous improvement," she said at the Forum. 

"I have been through 11 years of corporate responsibility reporting and setting goals, and it can be very challenging when you feel you don’t have it all together yet. But that’s okay. That road we’re all on toward trying to be honest and trying to tell our story is very important." 

To gain buy-in from the uninitiated, lead with the ROI

Like many multinationals, Ascena Retail Group, the parent company behind brands like Ann Taylor, Loft and Lane Bryant, focuses much of its responsibility work on its supply chain. As part of its work, the company committed to empower 100,000 women in its global supply chain with health or financial literacy training in partnership with BSR's HERproject.

There are clear social benefits that come with this, but focusing on the financials is what really inspired suppliers to jump on board, says Jeannette Ferran Astorga, vice president of corporate responsibility for Ascena.

"Find the ROI," she advised other business leaders. "In our story, we lean heavily on our partners to drive impact—and that influence is important—but there’s no better way to influence than by showing the ROI. We were quickly able to prove to our suppliers that there is a return on investment from creating space in your workplace to empower women with more education—higher productivity, lower turnover, higher retention, lower absenteeism. It’s a win-win-win for the business, for the women and for the supplier." 

Cut yourself—and your peers—a little slack

As the saying goes, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Some might call this a cop-out, but the truth is that adopting change in massive institutions such as multinational companies takes time. By criticizing those who don't have it all figured out yet, we essentially discourage them from trying—and that's the opposite of what we in the sustainability community really want, says Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, managing director of corporate leadership at CECP. 

"The reality is there are some of us that are leading a little firmer than others," she said at the Forum. "They’re a little clearer about their direction. But that doesn’t mean that those who are just starting on their journey or who are maybe making some attempts at a journey should be criticized for even attempting. Part of the concept of inclusion is to open the door and welcome everyone—and that means that everyone has to be able to get started." 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni