The sauce to transform organizations into sustainable companies. 

Only 12% of corporate transformation programs achieve or exceed their aims and for sustainability programmes, that figure is just 4%. (Bains Research)

In today's economic, social and the highly connected world it is not enough to sponsor tree planting and declare in your financial reports how you plan to take action. In fact, lip service does not cut it and can even backfire. You can have the best intentions in mind but still, fail.

Most CEOs are convinced that companies should play a positive role in environmental stewardship and social development, they declare sustainability a top priority, launch a transformation program, hire a chief sustainability officer, and commit millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of management time to the effort. But then the momentum fades and the programme falls into the 4% success rate.

Sustainability transformations adds another dimension of challenge to a transformation programme. Often, enthusiastic leadership teams overlook the difficulties frontline employees confront when implementing new approaches. If employees feel forced to choose between sustainability targets and business targets, for example, most choose business targets. 

Sustainability leaders overcome organizational resistance by changing attitudes and behaviours. 
Organizational change takes time and management commitment, but companies that succeed say it’s worth the investment. Sustainability efforts can invigorate the core business, bolster the customer value proposition, secure the supply of key resources, lower operational costs and improve employee satisfaction.

To better understand the obstacles to sustainability efforts and how leading companies overcome them, Bain Research conducted a survey of more than 300 companies engaged in such transformations. The findings revealed four guidelines to beat the odds and deliver impressive sustainability gains.

Make it Public
Making clear public commitments with quantitative targets. Public targets send a ringing message throughout the ranks that helps overcome resistance to change. 
CEOs show the way
Not just with words, but by rolling up their sleeves and becoming deeply involved in the transformation.
Leadership teams
Leadership teams make the business case for change throughout the organization.
Use process and incentives
Leaders use process and incentive changes to reshape behaviours and ensure line managers incorporate sustainability into daily decision making.
Setting sustainability objectives has become part of the annual reporting exercise. But few companies hardwire sustainability into their organizations’ processes, accountability systems and incentives. The Bain survey revealed only 24% of employees are held accountable for sustainability in a meaningful way. By contrast, 72% of sustainability leaders scored highly on embedding sustainability into core processes vs. 32% of companies that are just starting on the journey.

Companies that achieve ambitious sustainability goals embed sustainable behaviours and processes throughout their business. Starting with easy internal marketing tactics such as shifting their annual incentive programme to be purpose-driven, inspiring and giving the chance for their top performers to personally take action e.g. Incentives with a purpose. Creating ambassadors and fulfilling the employee purpose. 
Another initiative is for Making line managers to take responsibility for delivering results. For example, some companies change their capital-approvals process to include sustainability factors, or increase time horizons in business case assessments, allowing more initiatives to qualify for investment. Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk established an internal price on carbon so business units that achieve carbon reductions receive cash back. “We proved early on the kinds of sustainability initiatives that had an attractive return on investment, so we developed a methodology to remove barriers to these projects being approved,” said Novo Nordisk’s vice president of corporate sustainability, Susanne Stormer. 

Successful companies also embed sustainability priorities in other incentive structures alongside financial KPIs. Food retailer Delhaize Group achieved results by linking remuneration to sustainability in all areas of the business. Until it did so, only 20% of leadership had their annual bonus linked to the company’s sustainability efforts, said Megan Hellstedt, vice president of sustainability at Delhaize Group. Two years later, all Delhaize officers had annual incentive bonuses tied to sustainability goals, and sustainability performance made up 10%-30% of bonuses. That approach improved management alignment to the goals, helping the company reclaim a position on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

The upside opportunities for companies that embrace sustainability are growing, but few companies get the return on their investment that they desire. The resulting disappointment is real, but it’s not inevitable. Answering a few key questions can help reenergize your efforts.
What stretch commitments can you make in a few key areas?

Where can the CEO help remove barriers to change?

What’s the best win-win test case to highlight the business benefits of sustainability?

Which simple process changes would deliver the greatest sustainability gains?

Changing deep-seated beliefs across the organization is not an easy task, but answering these questions will help advance you down the path toward achieving results.
The following article was updated by Marc Bouvron Founder of and inspired by Jenny Davis-Peccoud is a partner in the London office and leads Bain’s Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility practice. Paul Stone is an advisory partner in Bain’s London office and a member of the Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility practice. Clare Tovey is a sustainability senior consultant in the company’s London office.