What It Is
Sustainability plans are plans developed by an organization or government to achieve goals that foster environmental, community, and financial sustainability. These plans set goals that are particular to the organization in question. The plan will also establish guidelines for achieving and measuring the impact of these objectives.
This guide will use the EPA’s definition of sustainability, and will emphasize the environmental dimensions of sustainability plans. Other uses of the term “sustainability plan” may emphasize financial sustainability rather than environmental sustainability.
Sustainability, as defined by the EPA: “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
Why It Matters
Sustainability plans create a template for creating and implementing sustainability goals and measures. This plan will allow you to formalize and solidify what sustainability will look like at your organization. Having a plan will signal an organizational level– rather than individual– commitment to environmental issues.
The plan gives form to the organization’s commitment to the environment through the creation of goals, guidelines, timelines, and standards for measuring and reporting on sustainability goals.
Every organization is different, and so your goals and implementation will necessarily be tailored to your particular organization. Your goals should reflect the kind of work your organization performs. For instance, a vegetable processing company might find that they could make the biggest environmental and financial impact by reducing their water usage. This same goal would make less sense for a clothes retailer, who might instead focus on sourcing sustainable and ethically produced merchandise.
Similarly, your steps and timelines for meeting your goals should match the personnel and financial resources of your organization. While many sustainability measures will yield cost savings over time, they may require up-front funding that does not make sense for your organization in the near future. These goals might still be included, but will have a longer timeline and greater attention to financial impacts.
The measurement dimension of your plan should provide a way to account for the financial, environmental, and community impacts of the changes your organization undertakes. This will ensure that your environmental goals are also sustainable in the holistic sense of the word. These measurements will also provide content for reporting on the implementation of the plan to your stakeholders.
- Step One: Write a vision or mission statement.
- Step Two: Research other organizations’ sustainability plans and projects.
- Step Three: Identify areas that the organization can have a positive environmental impact.
- Step Four: Outline specific goals and targets based on your review of your organization.
- Step Five: Determine how you will implement these goals.
- Step Six: Determine timelines for each goal.
- Step Seven: Decide what metrics you will use to measure your goals.
- Step Eight: Create a reporting plan.
Step One – Write a vision or mission statement
Write a succinct and flexible vision statement that can serve as a point of orientation for the overall plan. This may sound easier than it actually is. You might decide to write this last, after you’ve codified your ideas while going through the later stages of developing your sustainability plan.
Consider what your overarching goal is in pursuing sustainability measures. What do you hope to achieve? How do your goals relate to your business operations and your strategic plan? Will your plan focus more on your organizational processes or its products, or will it do both? How do you imagine these plans will impact your employees and your community?
Another way to approach this is to identify the environmental issue that concerns you, and build your sustainability mission statement around this. A paper company, for example, might have the following mission statement:
“Deforestation around the globe has serious environmental consequences. It can lead to a loss of wildlife habitat, accelerate climate change, and degrade local water systems. As a leading paper production company, Organization X is uniquely positioned to help address these problems. Organization X is committed to minimizing our impact on ancient forests worldwide. We will achieve this by sourcing responsibly, reducing processing waste, and working to change our customer’s relationship with paper products.”
This statement recognizes a serious environmental problem, acknowledges the role that the organization plays in this problem, and suggests three broad areas where the organization can make changes. Protecting ancient forests is the orienting view for the entire plan. The sourcing, production, and customer arenas that are identified in the next statement are essentially an outline or preview of the implementation portions of the plan.
Step Two – Research other organizations’ sustainability plan and projects
Research what other similar organizations have done to green their operations. This can include both sustainability plans and specific projects they’ve undertaken. This will help you get a sense of what’s achievable and provide templates that are specific to your industry. You can use your local chamber of commerce and other professional networks as a resource to for identifying these organizations.
Step Three - Identify areas that the organization can have a positive environmental impact
To better understand where you can take steps to reduce your environmental impact, sketch out your organization’s processes, inputs, and outputs. This will require a broad knowledge of your organization’s operations. You might also consult with middle managers and employees to get a more detailed sense of how your resources are being used, as well as where and how waste is generated. Also include employee behaviors relevant to the organization (such as commuting) whenever possible.
You might also consider performing an energy audit, a waste audit, and measuring the carbon footprint of your business to see where changes are most needed. These evaluations could also be included as the first steps in your sustainability plan.
Step Four - Outline specific goals and targets based on your review of your organization
Review what you’ve learned about your organization’s environmental footprint and consider what goals make the most sense for your operation. Having a mix of short and long term goals will make your sustainability plan a living document that your organization can return to and revise over time.
You might decide to choose goals that tackle a broad spectrum of issues at your organization—everything from using reusable plates in the break room to installing solar panels – a scattered approach. Or you could tackle one or two large issues from different angles. Both approaches have their advantages – a thematic approach.
The scattered approach will improve your environmental impact on a number of fronts, but may seem disconnected and hard to rally around. A more thematic approach can lend some coherence to discrete measures. For instance, your plan might set an umbrella goal of dramatically reducing energy usage, and then attack that problem from a variety of vantage points.
Step Five - Determine how you will implement these goals
Now that you have your goals, how will you achieve them? Consider the upfront costs of making these changes, potential future cost savings, and the time and labor that will be required. Estimate as best you can the environmental benefits of the changes you’re considering. Compare the costs and time investment to the potential social and environmental benefits. Draft guidelines for meeting your goals. Be as specific as possible when deciding what steps need to be taken and who will guide their implementation.
Prioritize the goals that you find most compelling. These might be the goals that have the biggest impact, are easiest to implement, best fit your vision statement, or will save your organization the most money.
Step Six - Determine timelines for each goal
Develop timelines for each goal. For easily realizable goals, these may be short and concrete, while more complicated goals might have longer and more suggestive timelines. Regardless, it’s good to start with some sort of schedule, and stagger goals based on your resources and their level of priority.
Step Seven - Decide what metrics you will use to measure your goals
You need to be able to determine whether or not you’ve achieved a goal. Review your goals and implementation steps to ensure that you have both a measurable goal and a means of measuring it. For example, if one of your goals is to reduce your organization’s paper usage, you’ll need to know 1) how much paper your organization uses now, 2) have a strategy for reducing that use, 3) a realizable and specific target for reduction, such as a 20% reduction, and 4) a way of determining if you’ve achieved that goal by your deadline.
While measurement is important, you may have some goals that have impacts that are hard to measure. Employee and customer education is one example. These are still important goals and may be measured in alternative, less conclusive ways. For instance, you can track attendance numbers at sustainability trainings, or through more qualitative evidence.
Step Eight – Create a reporting plan
Include a plan for reporting your goals and achievements to employees and customers, if relevant. Decide on a direct and straightforward way to present a summary of your achievements. This might be as simple as assigning each goal one of three statuses: “achieved,” “in progress,” or “not on target.”
This summary can be a powerful way to communicate to stakeholders your commitment to the environment and your community. It demonstrates that you’ve taken the time and resources to commit to your pledges. Be prepared to back up your reporting with facts about specifics goals. This will shield you from charges of greenwashing. You can read more about how to avoid greenwashing in our guide on the subject.
- Step One: Create a sustainability or green team.
- Step Two: Communicate the plan and progress on goals to employees and stakeholders.
- Step Three: Evaluate, revise, and amend your plan.
- Step Four: Seek out local partners.
- Step Five: Continue to seek out inspiration and innovations.
Step One – Create a sustainability or green team
Consider organizing a team of employee volunteers to manage and perhaps even write your sustainability plan. This will help you to engage employees in the process and make it easier to communicate those goals and guidelines to the entire organization. For more complicated plans, it’s likely that you will need a team of people to implement your plan’s guidelines. Using volunteers rather than assigning a team will make it easier to identify the people in your organization who are passionate about this topic.
Step Two - Communicate the plan and progress on goals to employees and stakeholders
Communicating your plan to your employees is key. Having a solid mission statement will help them to understand the rationale behind specific measures and their role in implementing those measures. Keep employees updated on progress towards goals and revisions to the plan. It may also help to solicit feedback, particularly for goals that the organization has trouble meeting.
Consider also communicating your plan and progress towards goals to outside stakeholders. This could be one piece of a larger marketing strategy.
Step Three - Evaluate, revise, and amend your plan
It’s likely that your plan will not be perfect in its first iteration. This is not a problem in and of itself; it is a problem if you persist with a plan that clearly isn’t working. This suggests to employees and other stakeholders that your commitment to sustainability is not serious. Identify areas that need improvement. Some goals may simply not be realizable and will need to be bracketed for the time being. Other goals may need revised timelines or more modest targets. In some areas you may be doing better than expected, and can set more aggressive goals. Seek out feedback on how to meet goals that are lagging.
Step Four - Seek out local partners
You are probably not an expert on environmentalism, and that’s fine! Seek out people who are. You might find that the best way to meet your goals—or even to define those goals—is by partnering with relevant community organizations that can collaborate with you on specific projects.
Step Five - Continue to seek out inspiration and innovations
Be open to researching new strategies, technologies, and products. The fields of green technology and environmental science are constantly changing. If you’ve identified a problem you don’t have a solution for, don’t simply strike that problem from your list of goals. Keep it on the back burner. A few years from now, there might be a more affordable or easier to implement solution than is available now.
It’s difficult to find examples of small- and medium-size business sustainability plans available to the public. Most examples come from local governments and large businesses. That said, it’s easy to find stories about what steps organizations have taken to pursue sustainability.
Interface, a textile company, has a particularly compelling story about how it has made progress towards its goal of having a closed-loop system for the manufacture of its carpets. It provides a good example of how a business has thoroughly interrogated all aspects of its practices to improve its sustainability. You can read about Interface in the article “The Sustainable Industrialist: Ray Anderson of Interface” by Richard Todd available on Inc.com.
Resources for More Information
The Step-by-step Guide to Sustainability Planning: How to Create and Implement Sustainability Plans in Any Business or Organization by Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard
Marsha Willard, “Creating an Effective Plan for Your Sustainability Efforts,” GreenBiz.com
Green Business Guide, US Small Business Administration
Examples of Sustainability Plans:
Washington DC, District Department of Transportation Sustainability Plan
Best Business Center, Portland, OR, Writing a Sustainability Plan (template)
Corporation for National and Community Service, Sample Sustainability Plan
Unilever, Sustainable Living Plan
Sustainability plans are your best way of turning grand ambitions into realizable goals. By laying out specific steps and establishing metrics for measuring the results of these steps, you’ll be able to realize and revise your sustainability goals, and communicate the results of your organization’s labor to stakeholders in a meaningful way.
Glossary of Related Terms
Sustainability: From the EPA: “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
Green Team: Team of employee volunteers that manages sustainability efforts at your organization.
Stakeholder: A stakeholder is any person, member, or group affected by your organization’s actions. This could include employees, shareholders, your local community, other businesses, and communities connected to your supply chain.
Qualitative evidence: Quantitative evidence is evidence that can be measured, such as statistics. Qualitative evidence, by contrast, is based on observation and inference. It might include narratives, interviews, and other documentation that cannot be readily quantified.
 Financial sustainability is, of course, an important and necessary goal. If you can’t stay in business, your other sustainability and community goals will be a moot point. An example of a financial sustainability guide for non-profits is: Peter York, “The Sustainability Formula: How Nonprofit Organizations Can Thrive in the Emerging Economy,” TCC Group, http://tccgrp.com/pdfs/SustainabilityFormula.pdf, accessed 11 July 2013.
 Sources referred to for the writing of this guide include: Marsha Willard, “Creating an Effective Plan For Your Sustainability Efforts,” GreenBiz, 28 November 2006, http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2006/11/28/creating-effective-plan-your-sustainability-efforts, accessed 11 July 2013; Jonathan Bardeline, “Seven Steps to Inject Sustainability Into Business Plans,” GreenBiz, 3 February 2011, http://www.greenbiz.com/news/2011/02/03/seven-steps-inject-sustainability-business-plans, accessed 11 July 2013; “Grass Roots Sustainability,” University of Vermont Online, http://www.universityofvermontonline.com/grass-roots-sustainability/, accessed 11 July 2013; “What is a Sustainability Plan?” ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, http://www.icleiusa.org/action-center/planning/ICLEI_What%20Is%20a%20Sustainability%20Plan.pdf, accessed 11 July 2013; “Unilever Sustainable Living Plan,” Unilever, http://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/uslp/index.aspx, accessed 11 July 2013.