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Brain circuits

Learn and replicate these 4 actions that the very best sustainability performers take

Published 21 December 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

Sustainability, you could say, is the new Olympic sport. It’s being performed in exemplary manner by those who do it so well they could take home a medal for it, but how well is it being practiced by everyone else?

Not as well as it could be, and this is partly because too much focus tends to be put on changing the processes in the firm but it’s about more than that. We can see this by looking at the top players – from Schneider Electric, to Neste, to Ørsted – and finding common threads.

The exercise

Imagine you’re being called in to your company’s Board of Directors meeting to present a vision for a company sustainability plan. Take 2 minutes now to brainstorm a few key ideas, and then compare them with the 4 areas below where we see the leading firms in sustainability converging.

  1. They integrate sustainability into their strategy

Otherwise put, they make sustainability mainstream. Can you actually think of a reason why sustainability and strategy should be separated? We can’t, but they continue to be so in the main part. However, Schneider Electric has forged new ground by melding the two most senior positions in both ambits together to create a Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer.

If your organization’s culture is to be bold, then disrupt yourself with sustainability; if it is to be very fact-based then take that line with sustainability too
- Knut Haanaes & Frédéric Dalsace
  1. They don’t try to create sustainability goals at odds with the existing organizational culture

The best firms’ sustainability strategies are aligned with their most successful existing values. A case in point: Neste’s sustainability strategy is bottom up because the existing culture values decentralization and putting things in clusters.

If your organization’s culture is to be bold, then disrupt yourself with sustainability; if it is to be very fact-based then take that line with sustainability too.

There’s a huge difference between this approach and getting bogged down with goals to, for instance, having minimal footprint. Otherwise seen, it’s about aligning with the biggest force and maximizing the positives, as opposed to minimizing the negatives.

  1. They have key people on board who make it happen

This is all about choosing people – let’s call them “change agents” – who are not just thinkers or even dreamers, but have an operational mindset and are willing to be champions of sustainability.

Firms such as L’Oréal know that they need people who are knowledgeable about the company operations leading their sustainability efforts. In particular, two women had a great influence at L’Oréal in this ambit and one was brought into the company while the other was an insider. So there’s no hard and fast rule there.

  1. They change a few key systems to facilitate change

Attention needs to be paid to the processes and systems required to make things happen, and to have a ripple – or trickle – effect across the company.

There’s no one-size-fits all. Schneider Electric created a three-year Schneider Sustainability Impact (SSI) Index with quarterly reporting and external audits. L’Oréal became highly active in sustainability when sustainability targets were included in the bonus of top executives.

Questions should be asked across departments such as: How can we align the work of sustainability with the ordinary processes of the company? But remember that process alone will not suffice: it’s the sum of the whole range of actions taken that will see change.



Knut Haanaes

Knut Haanaes

Lundin Chair Professor of Sustainability at IMD

Knut Haanaes is a former Dean of the Global Leadership Institute at the World Economic Forum. At IMD he teaches in many of the key programs including the MBA, EMBA, and other executive programs. He is Program Co-Director of the new Leading Sustainable Business Transformation program and the Driving Sustainability from the Boardroom program. His research interests are related to strategy, digital transformation, and sustainability.

Frédéric Dalsace

Professor of Marketing and Strategy at IMD

Prior to IMD, Frédéric Dalsace spent 16 years as a Professor at HEC Paris where he held the Social Business / Enterprise and Poverty Chair presided by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Prior to his academic life, he accumulated more than 10 years of experience in the business world, both with industrial companies (Michelin and CarnaudMetalbox) and as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company. He is Co-Program Director of the Leading Customer – Centric Strategies program.


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