Setting Sustainability Priorities

4Identify Relevant Sustainability Attributes

A review of sustainability dimensions shows that there are literally hundreds of potential attributes of sustainability for a company to consider. And of course, no company can address them all, nor are all equally important to an organization or its stakeholders. For the food industry, some, like food safety, obviously take precedence. But once you move beyond the obvious, how do you decide where to focus your resources?

Even if your company is just beginning its sustainability journey, it likely is already considering attributes of sustainability as part of other initiatives. A company’s strategic planning, business continuity, continuous improvement, risk management, marketing activities or other initiatives may include components relevant to sustainability even if they aren’t called out as such. To avoid reinventing the wheel, review the various current business processes or initiatives for links to sustainability. For example, supply chain initiatives to reduce resource consumption or operations projects to improve efficiency may tie closely to sustainability. Attributes of sustainability that are being addressed as part of existing programs indicate that they have already been identified as important to the company. Is marketing exploring certain product attributes or label claims that tie into sustainability? Presumably, these have been identified as important to your consumers. The sustainability elements already targeted as part of your business process are strong contenders for your sustainability priorities short list.

Conversely, focusing only on topics related to profitability or risk avoidance may overlook sustainability attributes important to stakeholders or that benefit the company in other ways. Once you have identified sustainability attributes that are already in play, take a step back and look at the larger sustainability playing field to see what you may be missing.

A good first step is a simple brainstorming exercise. Begin by listing the dimensions of sustainability important to your company on a flipchart. The three generally recognized dimensions are Environment, Social and Economic. Ask participants which of the various attributes under each do they think are:

  1. important to the company,
  2. important to stakeholders,
  3. consistent with company values, and
  4. aligned with your business objectives.

This exercise will likely yield a still-substantial list of sustainability attributes. Review which attributes cross over or show up in more than one dimension. Discuss which attributes may negatively or positively impact other attributes. This exercise will help participants begin thinking about the concept of tradeoffs and priorities.

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