In the sustainability field, there is a vast amount of work that needs to be done. “We as humanity don’t have that much time left to change our habits – the clock is ticking”, says sustainability influencer Outi Pyy.
A big part of Outi’s work is helping textile companies become more sustainable. But sustainability is not just the responsibility of a sustainability director or someone running a sustainability programme, it needs and deserves to go through the whole organization in order to be implemented effectively. An important part of this is defining company sustainability values and acting according to them throughout the organization.
“Companies have a big job to do in defining their sustainability values, and this is something they really must do. I believe that companies must become living and breathing entities that have a personality and set of values – and go even further by prioritizing them into a sustainability value hierarchy. Without this value setting and prioritization, there is constant value conflict going on in the organization, because everyone is acting just by their own personal values. I see this as a risk at a company and a personal level”, Outi says.
Unfortunately, in many companies, value setting and value prioritization hasn’t been done and discussed. And in sustainability, this is critical. For example, how do you value and prioritize social, economic and ecological sustainability in organizations? Which one is more important to you or the company, if you have to choose? Do you prioritize climate change or responsible production in sourcing? It’s about making decisions – all the time.
The meaning of values and prioritization within a company is that they guide employees, help them make faster decisions and indicate what should be done and why. If organizations don’t have clear values set in a specific order, there is a risk that everything is ambiguous and lacking clear direction.
Product designers face a sustainability challenge that they find impossible to fix without clear expectations and discussions
“A common example is that for years, designers have been loaded with expectations that they should be making products as well as they did earlier, but more cheaply – and now also more sustainably. But sales and marketing personnel are not obligated to make their process any more responsible or sustainable. Their expectations are still based on sales volume, not quality. That’s why it’s super important to discuss sustainability with every department, using their own language and approach, and point out that there really is a conflict that must be solved. Sustainable practices must apply to all departments through the organization.”
And language is the key. You need to talk with every department in language they understand. That’s Outi’s role in many organizations. But it starts with admitting there’s a problem.
“The first thing that needs to be done by everyone is to admit that this is a huge problem. The core is that everyone is acting by their own distinct values, and it’s impossible to steer every department to the same direction.”
What many companies are looking for is some kind of sustainability switch; they want an easy way of doing business sustainably. Their expectation might be that one consulting session and one test is enough to make real change, but this is not how it works. This transition could be compared to training for a marathon: you have to constantly live in a healthy manner – you can’t just go for a run and eat salad once and think that changes everything.
Sustainability is achieved through heavily value-based actions. Changing organizations is a true challenge for leaders and employees, and everyone must be ready to change their thinking completely. And somehow, this idea has to be sold to all departments and subordinates. It’s the only way that real change can happen.
Finding the energy within
Achieving sustainability is a massive challenge and, in many organizations, a very difficult subject with all its battles and disagreements, so how do you actually do this work on a daily basis, do you get exhausted?
Outi explains that a sense of purpose makes this change possible:
“Doing meaningful things is a driving force for me. I believe that once a person or an organization is doing something that is meaningful for them on a personal level, they become unstoppable. It really gives you energy and enables you to utilize your full potential.”
The goals can also change all the time, and as Outi is an enthusiastic lifelong learner, her goals also change as she moves forward.
“Now, I’m approaching my goals, but every time I get closer to them, my final goals also change. But I’m nearly there.”
As sustainability is a complex and very broad topic, there is constantly something new to learn from the latest research and studies. It can make you feel exhausted, and it really takes a lot of energy and time to be up to date with the issues. That’s one big reason why setting sustainability value priorities, consultants and professionals are crucial.
But it is not only about knowledge. It is also about being merciful.
And that is precisely what Outi points out:
“We shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves. Changes as big as this mean that there are going to be some setbacks as well. That’s one reason I speak a lot about mercy. There will be failures and not everything will go according to plan. I think we have to realize that at some point, things go wrong, and then we have to be merciful – to others and to ourselves. And try again.”
Sustainability will hopefully be integrated into all businesses and every department in the future
Hopefully, in the future, we will not speak about sustainability as a detached part of business. It must be integrated into the core of companies, businesses and organizations. This kind of change is done step by step. We also need new approaches and tools.
“I suggest that companies and decision makers should talk directly to the critics – the non-governmental organizations. This represents a new kind of corporate culture and is significantly different from conventional ways of initial planning with consultants. There are plenty of very good organizations out there. To name a few, here are some in Finland I would like to refer to: Finnwatch, Eetti ry, Suomen tekstiili ja muoti ry, Suomen Ammattiliittojen Solidaarisuuskeskus, FIBS ry, WWF and Suomen luonnonsuojeluliitto.
It’s important to remember that NGOs are critical of businesses because they want to change the world for the better. But in order to really change the world, they also need to collaborate with companies. As a matter of fact, it might be the only way forward. They can also help companies think outside the box.
Good sustainability experts are curious knowledge-seeking individuals
There is also a growing demand for in-house sustainability experts. How can you recognize a good one?
“A great sustainability expert has a constant thirst for knowledge. They might even have a very detail-orientated attitude. They know all the latest news and studies and one of the most important things is the ability to question oneself and others all the time. This is how they can offer constructive criticism, and this way, they help develop the company.”
Outi notes that it’s also an excellent idea to invest in your own and your company’s knowhow from self-learning material and courses. For example, in Finland Aalto-yliopisto has many courses available (Read more here). It’s also good for networking, because right now, there are not that many sustainability experts in Finland that are not tied to a certain company. But the number is rising, luckily.If you don’t yet have a sustainability expert, Outi has some simple parting advice: “For companies, I suggest an easy rule of thumb for sustainability: if you cannot be completely honest to others and yourself about what you are doing, you are not doing the right thing, and should try again.”