Once your company has finalized and published its CSR commitments, attention needs to turn to the actual implementation of those commitments, which includes the day-to-day decisions, processes, practices and activities that are required in order for the company to adhere to its commitments and effectively carry out its overall CSR strategy. It is imperative that companies follow through on the promises and aspirations spelled out in the CSR commitments and demonstrate to all of their stakeholders that they are serious about fulfilling their obligations. Implementation failures create mistrust and cause confusion among stakeholders as to how the company will respond to certain situations. Taken to the extreme, a company that fails to implement its CSR commitments will find itself losing employees, customers and business partners and will see its reputation in the marketplace and community plummet.
Implementing CSR commitments involves identifying and setting clear goals and targets that can be readily measured and reported on to stakeholders. While many of the aspirations associated with CSR commitments are big and brave, often akin to dreams, it is nonetheless necessary to turn them into objectively stated goals with a timeframe and performance criterion so that at some point a fairly clear answer can be given to the question of whether or not the goal has been achieved. Goals and targets bring commitments to life and take companies beyond good words and intentions to the point where they take actions based on their preexisting strategic and management capabilities and core competencies. The power of goals and targets are enhanced by disseminating them throughout the company’s stakeholder groups and committing to report regularly on progress and connect the goals and targets to measurement of performance and effectiveness among directors, executives, managers and employees. Hopefully a good deal of thought has been given to goals and targets as the CSR commitments were being selected since stakeholders will understandably expect to see companies proceed quickly to implementation once the initial fanfare surrounding the announcement of the commitments fades away.
There is no universal approach to implementing CSR commitments and the methods used by companies will vary depending upon the specific content and focus of their commitments, current organizational structure, organizational culture, resources, priorities of the CEO and the other members of the senior management team and other factors. One way to implement CSR commitments was suggested by Hohnen and Potts and included the following steps that are discussed in the following sections:
- Develop a CSR implementation plan;
- Develop an integrated CSR decision-making structure;
- Prepare and implement a CSR business plan;
- Set measurable targets and identify performance measures;
- Engage employees and others to whom CSR commitments apply;
- Design and conduct CSR training;
- Establish mechanisms for addressing problematic behavior; and
- Create internal and external communications plans.
As should be clear from reviewing the bullet points above and sections below describing each of the activities, implementation requires support and investment from across the entire organization. While primary responsibility may be vested with a group or department, input will be need from the board of directors, all members of the executive team and managers and employees in all of the functional and customer departments. For example, directors and executives must set the appropriate “tone at the top” and employees should not only be trained but also should be brought into the process of generating ideas for goals and targets and creating communications to external stakeholders regarding those goals and targets.
10 Golden Rules for Setting Sustainability Goals
Woothiff noted that the emergence of sustainability reporting as a common practice of business organizations around the world had led to a focus on the process of setting appropriate sustainability goals and targets upon which the reports could be based. Goals and targets are also a necessary element of sustainability strategy—without goals and methods for measuring performance against them a company’s sustainability initiatives will drift and quickly degenerate into a series of ad hoc actions and events will minimal overall impact. In order to assist companies in setting their sustainability goals, Wothiff offered a menu of “10 Golden Rules”, which form the basis for the following list of suggestions and guidelines:
- The goals should not only address sustainability challenges laid out in the commitments but should also benefit the business and expand business opportunities for the company. In order to motivate involved parties within the company to pursue environmental and social goals they should also make good long-term business sense for the company. For example, support skills development in the local community not only enhances wellbeing among the company’s neighbors but also provides the company with a strong local talent pool to choose from when hiring for growth initiatives.
- The goals and targets should be formally reviewed and approved at the very top of the organization—by the directors and members of the senior executive team. In the ideal situation the entire process will be publicly driven by the CEO, who takes responsibility for suggesting, championing and implementing the sustainability goals and targets. The directors and executives have a responsibility to demonstrate to all internal and external stakeholders that sustainability is a key element of the company’s strategy and is perceived as a driver of innovation, improvement, progress and growth for the business.
- Sustainability goals should be based on activities and investments that will be integral to the business of the company, as opposed to creating separate work that diverts resources from core activities. Sustainability goals and targets should be created for each of the company’s main functional activities including research and development, manufacturing, operations, packaging and distribution, supply chain and human resources so that the company improves its processes and procedures at the same time it is making a positive impact on sustainability challenges.
- Companies need to strike the appropriate balance between impact and achievability when setting their sustainability goals and targets. The goals should stretch the company and its organizational capabilities and, if achieved, should have a demonstrable impact; however, they should not be set so high as to guarantee failure, which creates a weak track record and damages morale. Setting goals that are too soft exposes the company to criticism for meaningless gestures and engaging in “greenwashing”.
- All of the goals should be important; however, resources are limited and companies need to prioritize activities for a particular period to make sure that their efforts achieve the most meaningful impact and generate the biggest results. Sustainability goals should be aligned with other current initiatives throughout the business so that sustainability is tightly aligned with strategy and the sustainability program clearly addresses important needs inside the company.
- Goals and targets should be not be selected and published without a clear strategy that outlines the path the company intends to take in order to achieve those goals and targets within the specified timeframe and budget. If agreement cannot be reached on strategy, or if the necessary resources are not readily available, the goal should not be included. It is better to have a relatively small number of attainable and impactful goals as opposed to a long list that includes goals that cannot realistically be achieved.
- While, as mentioned above, the “tone at the top” matters and the CEO should be a champion of the sustainability goals and targets, ideas should be solicited from everyone in the organization. Employees generally have the best understanding of the types of changes in the day-to-day activities of the company that can have the biggest impact on the company’s environmental and social performance. Moreover, a number of studies have confirmed that employee engagement in sustainability activities leads to higher morale and loyalty, thus reducing turnover. Engaged employees are also strong ambassadors for the company in their interactions with other stakeholders.
- Sustainability goals and targets are certainly excellent internal management tools and external public relations activities; however, the three key stakeholders in terms of gaining traction on the company’s efforts are employers, customers and consumers. When choosing goals and designing measurements for targets it is important to take the expectations of these groups into account so that each of them can recognize the tangible benefits they can expect to receive if the company is successful. Improved wellbeing for employees has already been mentioned; however, surveys indicate that consumers want to do businesses that perform well with respect to sustainability.
- Setting sustainability goals and targets is hard work and requires extensive engagement with internal and external stakeholders including outside organizations such as nonprofits, NGOs and governmental bodies in the communities in which the company operates. Engagement and collaboration with these external organizations provides access to new opportunities, solutions and resources. Moreover, support from these organizations lends credibility to the company’s sustainability efforts and communications.
- While many of the points above have focused on benefits of sustainability goals and targets to the business, sustainability initiatives obviously must also position the company as a “good corporate citizen”. Companies should approach sustainability goals as an opportunity to find innovative ways to simultaneously create new products, services and processes while also solving environmental or social sustainability issues that have not been satisfactorily addressed using traditional methods or approaches.
 P..Hohnen (Author) and J. Potts (Editor), Corporate Social Responsibility: An Implementation Guide for Business (Winnipeg CAN: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2007), 57.
 Adapted from J. Wootliff , Setting Sustainability Goals: 10 Golden Rules, Environmental Leader (December 9, 2010), https://www.environmentalleader.com/2010/12/setting-sustainability-goals-10-golden-rules/