Making Sustainability Stick: The Blueprint for Successful Implementation

A new book by Kevin Wilhelm

Why is it that after 20 years of people talking about sustainability in business, there are so few examples, outside of Interface and a few others, of companies that have integrated sustainability into everything they do?  After consulting with clients ranging from Nordstrom to REI to Alaska Airlines to Pacific Northwest National Labs, I’ve come to the realization that it’s partly a combination of people not understanding the true business case for sustainability “the why,” and companies not understanding actually “how” to do it.

While CSR and integrated bottom lines can provide companies a platform to display and integrate their efforts, the truth is that sustainability remains limited on impacting corporate decision-making and for the majority of companies that are working on sustainability; it remains outside of or as an add-on to their company culture.

That’s why I wrote Making Sustainability Stick. To provide a blueprint for the market on how to fully integrate sustainability throughout a company so that numerous businesses can begin to gain the real, full, and long-term benefits that come from those efforts – no matter how far along the path a company finds themselves and no matter the industry or size.

Integrating sustainability requires change – both in our actions and in our thoughts. And nobody likes to change. Therefore, this book pulls from my direct experience working with over 75 different businesses as well as from corporate and industry thought leaders such as Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Peter Senge, Bob Willard, Daniel Pink and many more, because in order for companies to realize the full benefits of sustainability they need both the technical (“the what”) and the behavior and cultural change elements (“the how”) that are so essential to making any initiative last for the long-term.

Therefore, one of the core aspects of this book is the new and cutting edge Hagen-Wilhelm Sustainability Change matrix. Every business is at a different point in their sustainability journey, and this is designed to help companies determine not only where they are on their journey, but also help them understand the unique sets of skills, challenges, and actions that are required on each phase of the matrix in order to proceed to succeed.

Every business and every employee has a set of skills that can contribute to a company’s sustainability efforts. Therefore, knowing where along the sustainability path those skills are needed is key because the exact skills and attributes that were needed early on may actually end up being hurtful and get in the way as a company’s sustainability efforts mature. To illustrate this, the Hagen-Wilhelm matrix takes a dynamic and systemic look at how companies truly go through this change.

Some lessons from the Hagen-Wilhelm Matrix:

•  Each phase has valuable learning’s necessary for success both in the short-term and long-term.

•  Companies don’t check a box and move from one phase to the next cleanly – both cultural and operational shifts are required.

•  You should expect tensions to arise when you get to that trade-off conversations. Often this is between environment and profitability. This is okay, don’t run from this because if you have a “no-tradeoff’s” philosophy, this will force rule breaking and new thinking, and that’s when innovation occurs.

•  The dominant behaviors of the leader that are needed for success in one phase are derailers in the next.

•  It’s important to engage the naysayers early in the process, as they are the ones who can see the landmines to avoid and can save you time, money and most importantly frustration.

In conclusion, Making Sustainability Stick, is about helping companies implement sustainability successfully by putting in place the fundamentals and then understanding the management and cultural shifts that are needed by the company and its employees to develop the processes, systems, evaluation and compensation systems that will embed sustainability for the long-term, but will lead to value creation and better social, environmental and financial outcomes that all companies are seeking when they get into this work.

Making Sustainability Stick

Making Sustainability Stick is THE sustainability implementation book for corporate professionals and students at all levels of sustainability. The book is designed for companies striving to be sustainability and industry leaders, companies and individuals that have seen their efforts plateau or stall out who want to regain momentum, as well as companies that are just getting started. Each digestible chapter is a stepping stone for companies to transform from where “sustainability is something they do” to full integration into every decision, process and day to day action.

The book shows how to capture employees and stakeholders around sustainability by engaging the head, heart and hands. Each chapter has practical action steps, case studies, real life experiences and pulls from over 40 of interviews with current business and sustainability leaders. In addition, it includes tips, checklists, worksheets and strategies for making sustainability real, overcoming obstacles and identifying opportunities will drive business value and drive successful implementation.

With the first chapter dedicated to the Business Case of Sustainability, the book is then divided into two major sections: Fundamentals and Engagement & Value Creation.

1)  The Business Case – No matter what, you must always tie things back to this issue. This is the reason that many of you are playing the game.

2)  Fundamentals – Chapters 2-6 include the building blocks that are essential for you to be successful. This is the blocking and tackling that will enable you to get to the next phase.

3)  Engagement and Value Creation – In chapters 7-11 this is where the rubber meets the road. This involves behavior change, engagement, and systems you need to institutionalize sustainability so that you can throw deep for the end zone.

Article by Kevin Wilhelm, one of the world’s preeminent business consultants in the field of sustainability and climate change. He is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting ( ), a Seattle-based consulting firm focused on demonstrating the bottom-line business benefits of sustainability and then leading companies through successful implementation. Kevin brings nearly two decades of experience working with businesses ranging from Fortune 500 multinationals to medium-sized businesses. His clients include Nordstrom, REI, The North Face, Alaska Airlines, Redbox, Expeditors,, Puget Sound Energy and more than 75 others.

Previously he wrote the acclaimed Return on Sustainability: How Business Can Increase Profitability and Address Climate Change in an Uncertain Economy, and he is a professor at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where he teaches various courses on sustainable business.

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