The 1 = 3-2 Sustainability Strategy

Mun Wei Chan
5 min readJan 14, 2020

Climate impact stories appear in the media every day, a mirror on how this existential crisis is affecting our lives — from fluctuating prices of daily produce to pondering whether freak weather will derail our holiday plans. It’s also a mirror on how governments, organizations and individuals are waking up to the urgency of doing something now before global warming reaches a tipping point and the train hurtles off the cliff.

The tide has turned from indifference and ignorance to concern and activism. As a sustainability advocate and consultant, I meet corporate leaders and counterparts who are genuinely interested to be part of the climate action coalition and figuring out how to get going. I would like to suggest a 1= 3-2 sustainability strategy as one possible path forward.

Let me explain.

The 1 starting point is knowing WHY your organization is embarking on its sustainability journey. While sustainability goes beyond safeguarding the environment, climate action should be a mandatory part of every sustainability strategy. This is because it cannot be business as usual when climate change is threatening the global supply chain, disrupting prices of resources, and changing consumers’ behaviour and expectations. While certain industries (such as general insurance) are more sensitive to climate change impacts than other industries (such as tuition centres), because of the inter-connectedness of the modern economy and that global warming is likely to worsen with no clear solution in sight, it would be myopic and irresponsible for any corporate leader to bury his or her head in the sand while the tide rises inexorably.

Starting with the why allows an organization to establish a mandate and scale the required resources. It’s like checking a compass periodically to ensure you’re moving in the right direction. Common reasons for embarking on sustainability include risk management, compliance, keeping up with the competition and responding to what customers are asking for. These are not mutually exclusive. Another important consideration is that the external context will be very different from what we have been used to. For instance, summer used to be a busy tourism period for Australia. But after this year’s extreme and lethal bush fires, tourists may be less likely to visit during the hot months and this will have a pronounced impact on Aussie hotels, attractions, car rental companies, F&B outlets and other leisure-related businesses.

The next part of a sustainability strategy is developing a detailed plan, which has 3 steps: what is the current state, what is the desired state and what are the concrete actions. Start by stocktaking how you are doing and what are current issues and problems. It is the proverbial SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis where you have to look outside AND within. The Environment-Economy-Social-Governance (EESG) framework is a useful typology to aid brainstorming on what are material sustainability-related issues. Responding to climate change is not only about building sea walls and buying insurance against weather risks. There is a silver lining in that there are new opportunities to tap on. For instance, more companies, such as the airlines, are buying offsets to compensate for their carbon emissions, and this will generate funding to support green projects such as renewable energy, recycling, carbon storage and forest regeneration. Can your organization tap on this green wave?

The second step of the plan is to set realistic and measurable goals, such as a reduction in your organization’s energy consumption and carbon footprint. The management should discuss and prioritize no more than 5 to 10 of such goals. This focuses minds and ensures that resources are channeled to what matters. The third step is articulating and implementing concrete plans and programmes. If energy efficiency is a goal, there needs to be a plan to track energy usage, optimize operations and switch to more energy-efficient equipment. This implementation plan is iterative as it should jettison what’s been tried and has not worked while incorporating new ideas and technologies (such as starting an internal competition on which department can save the most energy).

Thinking about strategy and writing it up into an impressive plan is the easy part. The hard part comes when you have to translate the plan into reality. Hence the third part of the 1=3–2 strategy is to avoid 2 critical pitfalls.

The first pitfall is producing a shelf queen. The strategy gets discussed and endorsed but is either not implemented or gets deferred. This could be because sustainability is a quadrant 2 corporate priority, i.e. important but not urgent. Thus, sustainability investments risk being deprioritized because of other pressing corporate concerns. To deal with this “lost in the woods” syndrome, all of us who are aware of and concerned with the urgency of climate change should speak up and nudge our colleagues, bosses, partners and clients into taking concrete action. Success begets success and what’s useful is to focus on simple quick wins at the outset, such as doing away with bottled water in the office. Clear organizational ownership and accountability would help too. There needs to be buy-in from the senior leaders on the need for sustainability and this cascades to functional units — such as Planning, Communications and Operations — being given the mandate and resources to implement the sustainability plan.

The second pitfall is focusing on the form instead of the substance. Think about how your organization can implement impactful and enduring changes. For instance, more and more F&B businesses are doing away with plastic straws as it is a visible and fashionable thing to do in reducing plastic waste. While banning straws can be a positive signal, it is unlikely to move the needle and could amount to greenwashing if suppliers continue to deliver their fresh produce heavily wrapped in plastic and the F&B businesses are still using loads of plastic bags and containers for take-out meals. If a business commits to being plastic-free or at least using less plastic, it’s essential to examine how plastics are flowing in and out of the business holistically, and practice ways to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle.

There you have it. Start your sustainability journey by first clarifying why. Having clarity on the rationale ensures that the baton gets passed on and the race continues even when people come and go in an organization. Next, build the 3-step action plan that maps out the route from where you are to where you want to go. Prioritize what you want to accomplish as that increases your chances of success. Resource efficiency is always a savvy sustainability objective because it is tangible, reduces carbon emissions (as less stuff is made and used) and is an easy sell to Finance because using resources optimally invariably leads to lower costs. Finally, ensure your sustainability plan does not become a shelf queen and that it focuses on what makes a difference — avoiding these two pitfalls builds credibility and support.

Implementing a sustainability strategy is like going on a long hike armed with a map and a GPS device. There will be hills to climb along the way. You have to pace yourself and focus on reaching each summit. When you reach the top, admire the scenery, check your bearings and press on. There are many hills we all have to surmount to safeguard our planet for future generations. Let’s get started.

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Mun Wei Chan

Mun Wei runs SustainableSG (https://sustainablesg.net/), a consulting and training business focusing on sustainability, strategy, risk and entrepreneurship.