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Bridging the Gap Between Quick Wins and Systemic Change in Sustainability

Inconsequential or not; quick wins – when done right – serve an important role in businesses’ broader sustainability strategies.

But let it be known that intentions and vows alone solve nothing the same way the disillusioned, albeit popular, thinking that doing anything is doing something is misguided. In other words, it is not merely enough to care or vow to change an issue until, well, you do something tangible aimed at addressing it directly.

And yet, as public pressure mounts on organizations to change their ways, so too does the appeal to do something – anything – to appease the public and to either slow or halt the imminent PR crisis barrelling towards sluggish and unresponsive organizations.

And, as precedence supports, nothing signals that an organization is scrambling to take action as strongly as engaging in “quick green wins.” In other words, scoring prompt, marketable, and comparatively inconsequential sustainability wins (ie.,cutting straws in lunchrooms) as a way to signal that their business is indeed changing its ways and ultimately transitioning towards a greener model. This phenomenon – wherein organizations boast spurious green claims – is, in addition to being an untenable sop aimed at appeasing and, yes, misleading genuinely concerned customers, widely used among organizations all the same.

But here’s the caveat; quick green wins – when executed properly – do not have to be green-washed ideas and may, in turn, serve as a beacon; illuminating the path towards a broader sustainably strategy.

Listed below are the two ways in which small and otherwise ignored wins help shape a structured organizational sustainability strategy: 

Executive sponsorship and changing mindsets

Every organization – big and small alike – uses either a structured or tacit hierarchal system to evaluate proposed ideas and as a way to ensure that all proposals align with the hierarchical leaders’ broader strategy and vision. Whereas supply-side initiatives – those that keep the business’ day to day operations running – are entrusted to middle managers, new and seemingly unprecedented initiatives – like those relating to sustainability in organizations with no pre-existing sustainability tactics – are generally evaluated by the highest ranking leaders (be it managers and directors at the departmental level or executives at the organizational level) on account that these ideas are, among other reasons, untried and admittedly riskier than known ones. Whatever the reasons, the ideas’ success hinges on the highest-ranking members’ approval all the same and on the extent to which they buy into their added value to the organization or department(s) in question.

Aside: I am neither suggesting nor advocating that upper management review and decide on whether to reduce printing or scrap plastic straw usage. I am merely highlighting that someone (or some group) entrusted by upper management with decision making privileges will. And that those people – in their duties and obligations to the executive team – heed executive interests at the departmental level and thereby assert support or disapproval towards green wins through their association with the executive team.

Eliminating plastic straws is a common quick-win strategy

That is important because therein lies reason number one demonstrating the importance that small and generally inconsequential “quick green wins” have in a broader sustainability context.

While the ideas alone may be unremarkable or bear immaterial consequence on the organization’s overall impact (take limiting paper printing in and oil &gas company as an example), they do however sensitize decision makers to sustainability-oriented ideas and signal to employees and investors alike that the organization’s heads do indeed support green practices, however small.

It also establishes the organizational precedent upon which all ensuing green ideas are evaluated. Cognizant to the support sustainability now commands among decision makers within an organization, middle managers concerned by the climate crisis, eager to impress and tasked with supply-side work will have licence to implement green ideas that achieve a dual business and planetary goal knowing that they have their executives’ support and buy in. Put broadly, this changing sustainability mindset, coupled with the underlying executive support that caused it, represents the starting piece around which the organization’s broader sustainable puzzle will be created.

All to say that while quick greens wins are, on balance, largely inconsequential in reducing an organization’s net impact, they do serve an important role in shaping its broader sustainability strategy by establishing executive support and changing the mindset in which sustainability is viewed.

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