Sustainability strategies poorly supported by operational processes

Posted on February 27, 2009


As a facilitator of wider sustainable change, computing can have a far bigger impact than its own footprint.  But we’ve a long way to go.  Sophie Hallstedt finds that even in companies that have adopted sustainability as core strategy, there is little evidence of the decision systems needed to enable these goals. 

In one chapter of  A Foundation for Sustainable Product Development,  Dr Sophie Hallstedt develops an approach to assess sustainability integration in a company’s decision systems.  She uses Willard’s stages of sustainability integration (previous post), and an assessment approach based on the (TNS) unified Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.  In practice, this means two stages:

1. Inventory of current general and sustainability orientated strategic decision systems.

2. Assessment of the strategic capability of these decision systems – both in general and in relation to sustainability.

In the inventory stage six companies at varying positions on Willard’s continuum were examined “for the remaining gap to sustainability for each of them“.   This means, she says,  that the studied companies may be leaders on their respective markets but still get suggestions on how to improve in relation to sustainability.  Each company was asked a set of overarching questions aimed at elucidating the role of decision system in strategic decision making (for both general and sustainable development). 

The strategic capability of the systems were assessed using a set of templates that aim to 

open up a creative dialogue and innovation within sustainability constraints

The results can perhaps be characterised as companies having elaborate and formal decision systems for most drivers in business  (business plan, competitor strength etc), but this does not apply to sustainability:

All studied companies regularly ran a planning process with focus on traditional short term tactical business success. This included comparisons with competitors on brand strength, costs, product portfolio, market share, stock value, etc.


(with one exception) none of the studied companies had formalized procedures for how to find the company´s sustainability challenges and for how to let them inform senior management decisions.

The same was found for product development.  Despite extensive use of product development tools (CAD etc) “it was uncommon that senior management required that sustainability was taken into consideration in the product development process“.  Either few tools are available, or they are not used.    

Again, while information flows up from developers to senior managers, this is of the “cost frames are at risk to be exceeded” variety, not sustainability.  Only one company had a Design for Environment approach that saw a “systematic way of informing the senior management level about ecological life-cycle consequences of potential projects“. 

The companies were asked for ideas to improve their decision system:

• learn how to concretize the word sustainability and if possible make it measurable.

• prioritize sustainability issues at the senior management level in order to integrate sustainability in the daily activities throughout the company. 

• spend more time and involve more people to discuss how to prioritize between potential investment paths before decisions are made. 

• get a systematic way to balance between what is the most simple way forward today commercially (tactics) and what is needed in the long-term (10 years or more) (strategy).


The idea of concretizing the concept of sustainability would clearly make things easier for senior managers.  The benefit is obvious, “the environmental department to concretize the term sustainability and translate it into quantifiable units that more easily could be processed in existing long-term prioritization support“.   So too, though, are the dangers, and these revolve around the very holistic nature of sustainability – how is it possible to count social sustainability for example? 

One of the companies Sophie worked with could be considered to be high up on Willard’s scale – at Integrated Strategy stage :

…where sustainability was defined at the success level, allowed sustainability issues to inform decisions and activities. And they have allowed this perspective to inform also their relationship with the value chain. They have, for example, made a strategic decision to educate the suppliers in strategic planning towards sustainability

yet even in this best example 

we could not identify a systematic use of product development methods and tools that included a socio-ecological sustainability perspective

What seems to be lacking are the decision systems to operationalise these system goals.   While this must hinder the achievement of goals for companies high up the scale of sustainability, it could be seen as a major barrier for companies with further to go.   While Dr Hallstedt defined decision support in a wider sense than just computing, clearly computing is crucial in the development and support of decision systems.  We’ve got a long way to go. 

Dr Hallstedt recommends:

1. An overarching supporting organisational context (explict senior management commitment, identification of business challenges in relation to sustainability definition, company specific challenges integrated into business – a combination of strategic backcasting and tactical forecasting.

2. Institutionalised internal company capacity building and communication: education, incentives etc

And lastly, and here’s the challenge for us to develop systems (computerised or not)

3. Integrated company ”toolboxes”.

An integrated “toolbox” should be introduced that focuses on how to close the gap between the present situation and long-term socio-ecological sustainability. This means to at least covering capabilities like:

(i) identification of sustainability challenges relevant to the organization,

(ii) generation of possible solutions and innovations,

(iii) communication between organizational levels through a common ‘language/terminology’,

(iv) evaluation and prioritization among solutions according to certain criteria, indicators and/or simulation scenarios. Methods and tools for investment calculus and risk assessment that integrates sustainability aspects seem to be especially desired, and will also be part of (iii), 

(v) concrete action planning for implementation of prioritized alternatives,

(vi) continuous progress monitoring, through indicators and feedback systems, to deal with deviations in relation to the long-term goals.