Once only the responsibility of sustainability managers, ESG performance and sustainability are today considered key areas of strategic focus for organizations, often reflected in Sustainability Action Plans developed by organizations.
Looming investor pressure, consumer awareness and the understanding that sustainability is an important tenet in risk management and corporate governance has seen responsibilities shift and awareness ripple across both departments and management levels.
The tidal shift has been embraced by organizations as they champion decarbonization. It presents ever-growing opportunities for innovation and increased investments towards green technologies which ultimately accelerate sustainability.
Much like operational plans are developed to future-proof an organization’s success, so too are Sustainability Action Plans in helping to achieve a low carbon business fit for the future. In this article, we lay out practical guidance on how to create a Sustainability Action Plan along with recommended inclusions and structure.
We also provide a free Sustainability Action Plan template for download to support your sustainability and ESG goals.
What is a Sustainability Action Plan?
A Sustainability Action Plan is created by an organization to detail how it will achieve sustainability goals over time, particularly if ambitious targets have been set such as achieving net zero by a specific time frame. It is usually a static document that details a 2–5-year timeline of objectives, although this period is at the organization’s discretion.
Its purpose is to embed ESG and sustainability across an organization, within all business operations. The path to a Sustainability Action Plan typically starts with a vision at an executive level, with the Sustainability Action Plan serving as the detailed strategy of how the vision will be achieved.
To complement the Sustainability Action Plan, organizations often release annual Sustainability Reports that detail the organization’s progress against the objectives. Together, Sustainability Action Plans and Sustainability Reports function as an important communications tool for organizations to illustrate their sustainability journey to a wide audience of stakeholders.
Sustainability Action Plans are not mandatory, rather, an initiative of an organization who wishes to make a positive impact on their sustainability performance.
In addition to planning and internal reporting. Many organizations disclose their sustainability performance via various ESG reporting frameworks. In some instances, the data collected for the production of a Sustainability Action Plan can be used to support the reporting requirements of frameworks such as GRI, GRESB and SASB.
And vice-versa, organizations reporting detailed information to ESG reporting frameworks may export some of those responses to their Sustainability Action Plans to illustrate how they are performing against their goals.
This task is made easy with Envizi’s ESG Reporting Frameworks module which allows organizations to collate responses for both external and internal reporting frameworks in one place. In addition to collating responses, the module includes functionality to extract responses for use in documentation such as a Sustainability Action Plan.
Who needs a Sustainability Action Plan?
Organizations of all sizes can make steps towards making their business operations more sustainable and positively contribute to their community and environment. Smaller organizations should consider the resource requirements of developing a comprehensive Sustainability Action Plan and achieving those objectives over time.
For larger organizations, a comprehensive Sustainability Action Plan is ideal for outlining the long-term vision and plans to satisfy investor requirements, changing consumer attitudes and to take advantage of opportunities. This is especially the case once pledges have been made, as the next stage in the process is to work out exactly how the organization will achieve those pledges.
How to create a Sustainability Action Plan
A Sustainability Action Plan requires dedicated commitment across all levels of an organization and can be transformational as it requires a top-down approach with cultural change, re-alignment of values and leadership endorsement. As a result, there are several considerations to take into account when developing a plan.
The consultation process and stakeholder engagement
Much like corporate annual reports require the input of an executive team, the Board, finance department, and other internal departments, so too does the process of creating a Sustainability Action Plan.
It requires extensive consultation across the executive and leadership level, committees and even the community depending on the sector and type of organization to establish targets and accountabilities. At the centre of the consultation process is an organization’s Sustainability Manager. In many organizations, the person in this role is responsible for developing both the business cases and doing the work to supporting the implementation and management of programs within organizations to deliver on their objectives.
Whether the organization has a Sustainability Manager or not, they may also choose to use the services of a sustainability consulting firm to guide them on the process and support their objectives.
Other examples of stakeholders involved in the consultation and implementation process may include:
The Sustainability Action Plan will involve setting outcomes, actions, and targets therefore it’s important that an organization understands its current ESG performance with accurate data to inform future benchmarks. Using an ESG and sustainability reporting software platform such as Envizi can simplify emissions calculations and automate the collection of energy consumption data which will be required when reporting on the progress of the plan.
What is included in a Sustainability Action Plan?
Inclusions in a Sustainability Action Plan can vary depending on the type of organization, its size, and the sector it operates in. For example, a start-up or an independent education centre such as a school may choose to focus on smaller initiatives to start implementing changes at the business.
Examples of achievable initiatives at this level could include:
- Using water tanks
- Gardening such as a vegetable garden
- Recycling system
- Turning off lights when not in use
- Using energy-saving bulbs
- Implementing a printing policy
Larger organizations with ambitious goals and extensive resources could include initiatives such as:
Councils and municipalities
- Reducing Scope 3 emissions from suppliers
- Mass tree planting scheme
- Providing a community shuttle bus
- Introducing cycle routes
- Installing LED lighting
Property developers and organizations
- Optimizing HVAC equipment performance
- Using local labor and materials
- Incorporating water and waste re-use strategies
- Ensuring sustainability is part of client consultation and scoping
- Incentivize staff remote-work opportunities
- Reducing GHG emissions in the upstream supply chain
- Reducing power usage in data centers
- Investing in renewable energy sources
- Electrifying the transport fleet
- Upgrading energy-intensive equipment
Commercial real estate
- Developing a demand-side energy management strategy
- Waste minimization
- Implementing renewable energy
- Improving GRESB score
- Implementing end of trip facilities
Structure of a Sustainability Action Plan
Whilst the structure, inclusions and scale of a Sustainable Action Plan are at the organization’s discretion and stem from the initial consultation process, there are a few inclusions we recommend to ensure a Sustainability Action Plan which reflects an organization’s commitment to sustainability.
Background on the organization’s view of sustainability and its core values which motivate the development of the Sustainability Action Plan.
Endorsement at the C-Level usually from the CEO, outlining the organization’s commitment to sustainability.
If the organization operates within a sector which legislates reporting to a framework, this section would outline the requirements of that legislation or policy to provide stakeholders with context around the motivations for the Sustainability Action Plan.
Outlines how stakeholders participated in the development of the Sustainability Action Plan (such as workshops and forums), and which stakeholders were involved.
Methodology and review process
Outlines how the targets will be measured and progress monitored, which could include how regularly a Steering Committee or other key stakeholders will be updated. A Sustainability Report could be one of the vehicles for communicating this progress.
These are broad outcomes that steer the detailed actions and targets in the Sustainability Action Plan. Examples of outcomes could be “Decrease energy usage by 2025” or “Educate stakeholders”.
- Secondary outcomes
These could be complementary outcomes which help to group actions within the broader outcome. Examples of secondary outcomes could be “Transport” or “Energy and emissions”.
The tangible actions that will be undertaken to achieve a specific target within that secondary outcome, and broader outcome. Examples of actions could be “Replace inefficient HVAC systems” or “Develop recycling policy”.
Specific KPIs placed against the actions to ensure progress is made. Examples of targets could be “100% of older HVAC systems replaced” or “75% increase in electronics diverted to e-waste programs”.
Assigning champions to action the targets could include listing departments or position titles.
Assigning specific months or quarterly timeframes ensures that targets can be realistically achieved.
The structure of a Sustainability Action Plan varies widely, and care should be taken to ensure that the inclusions of the plan, including the targets, are achievable for the organization.