10 steps to developing an industry sustainability program

Published on October 28, 2013

A series – How to build industry association sustainability programs
Part 4 of 6

sustain-industries-3One of the top trends in corporate social responsibility and sustainability is industry collaboration. As companies pursue sustainability goals more aggressively, they realize they cannot work in isolation from their economic eco-system. They need to work with their suppliers, vendors, customers and industry peers. Therefore there is a growing need for industry associations to respond to this demand for collective action.

Here is a 10-step guide to developing an industry association sustainability program. It was informed by my research on the role of industry associations combined with my experience on an industry association board (BC Central Credit Union, at that time the trade association and liquidity facility for more than 100 BC credit unions).

Ten steps to industry sustainability

1. Understand sustainability trends and best practices. Associations can research emerging and frontier sustainability trends, impacts, issues and dependencies and canvass members on top sustainability challenges and concerns. With this information, they can develop an overarching set of issues and opportunities for the sector to tackle collectively. This usually results in a “call to action” to build buy-in and support from the broad membership.

2. Consult and prioritize. Once the membership has agreed on the need for collaborative action, the association consults with members and external stakeholders to determine the top priorities a sustainability or CSR program should address – and any gaps in current programs.

3. Develop sustainability vision or principles. An important, often overlooked, step is to develop a sectorwide sustainability vision or set of principles. Clarity on a definition, principles and the long-term direction of an association’s CSR initiative can help focus future programming on top issues for the industry or profession.

4. Get your house in order. To effectively champion sustainability leadership to their members, associations can adopt their own in-house sustainability program.

5. Develop tools and education programs. Associations can develop tools, guides and learning platforms to support their members along the sustainability path. Peer learning and mentoring are important steps to educate the sector and bring all members up to speed on CSR. Training and education are critical components of a successful program.

6. Develop a plan, metrics and targets; track and reward progress. As with any initiative, it is important to develop, implement and monitor a plan to improve member sustainability performance including targets and metrics for tracking and measuring success. Many associations provide “green” awards for members with top performance and celebrate sustainability progress at annual conferences.

7. Develop industry code of practice. To respond to member requests, keep ahead of government regulation and/or enhance industry license to operate, some associations develop voluntary or mandatory codes of environmental and social practice. The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) launched its program Towards Sustainable Mining in 2004. It is a mandatory program for members and includes external verification of companies’ performance. New members have three years to comply and publicly report their performance against the standards. A multi-stakeholder “community of interest panel” provides advice and feedback on the program to ensure it is based on best practices.

8. Analyze and engage. From the vision process in Step 3 above, the association can back-cast to identify barriers and opportunities for the realization of the vision. Through stakeholder consultation, the association can identify partners to help tackle the systemic challenges to sector sustainability. Industry working groups can be established to liaise with business, government and civil society on sustainability projects.

9. Report on sector results. Associations can adopt sectorwide metrics to guide member sustainability progress. They then can gather member performance data into an industry progress report to enhance accountability with the government and public. The association can assess annual performance data to identify opportunities for continuous performance improvement. Members can also benchmark their performance to their peers and competitors.

10. Contribute to progressive public policy. Industry needs a level playing field to operate effectively. There is considerable uncertainty in Canada and globally regarding government’s role to require business to fully address social and environmental impacts. Association leaders can proactively reach out to government to support the development of effective public policy frameworks that both advance sustainability and enable industry to compete and thrive.

I elaborate upon these 10 steps in my sustainable industry association roadmap, where I also profile case studies of Canadian industry association efforts. Let me know if you have other examples of industry association leadership on these issues.

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