Industry association sustainability programs: challenges and opportunities

Published on November 12, 2013

A series – How to build industry association sustainability programs
Part 5 of 6

sustain-industries-5As sustainability rolls across the corporate landscape, every industry and professional association will be compelled to help their members develop an appropriate response. As with any social change, there are sustainability leaders and laggards and a large middle majority looking for ways to develop sustainability programs.

In this blog series I offer tips and tools to industry associations to help them help their members along the path to sustainability and future prosperity. In the first two posts I discussed the benefits of sustainability programs to associations and their members, and profiled 10 steps in my sustainable industry association roadmap.

In this post I identify the challenges – and the accompanying opportunities. Here are some of the barriers industry associations confront as they help their members become sustainable and the measures they can pursue to overcome them.

Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges Opportunity
Resource, cost and time constraints, especially for smaller members. Leader members may be willing to fund collective research. Associations can charge program fees. Larger companies can mentor smaller companies. Focus on a few key components and build the rest later.
Competition (getting companies that compete fiercely in the marketplace to work together). Find common ground. Focus on pre-competitive issues where collaboration can make a difference. Identify and advance on sustainability issues where members are not competing – waste management, for example.
Membership diversity, including different sizes, sectors, level of sustainability competence and resource availability. Identify priorities based on consensus. Consider a graduated rating system with no pass-fail, but a path of continuous improvement from basic to advanced performance. Help members identify pre-existing programs and initiatives that can be leveraged.
Lack of skills, knowledge and experience. Experienced members can provide direction. Secure the support of external expertise.
Member lack of time to develop program. Ask leading members to contribute their time. They have a lot to gain from industry standards in this area.
Securing the buy in of the association board and senior leadership. Find the elements that everyone can get behind and support. Align the project to the association’s existing corporate priorities. Build the business case internally. Engage the sustainability champions within the industry to promote the program to others.
How to measure results; development of meaningful metrics. Look at what other industry associations have done in this area. Consider the Global Reporting Initiative, a voluntary international reporting standard, for guidance.
Developing a definition of sustainability and identifying top issues to include in the program. Engage sustainability experts, industry experts and external stakeholders to determine components of a best-in-class program. Pilot the program with a good cross-section of members to see what works and what doesn’t.
Procedures for enforcement. How to determine when a member is not following the standards. Make guidelines achievable for members. Develop an implementation plan to increase engagement and involvement over time. Consider a means of third-party auditing to validate the performance level or ranking.
Getting the reputational benefits of the effort. Getting the message out that we are doing this. Focus on the development of a strong platform before going public. Once performance improvements or high performance levels can be demonstrated, consider publishing results.

The best security is to have a committed leadership team with a strong link to the association’s executive and board of directors. I will profile the critical success factors for an effective program in my next, and final, blog of this series.

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