Why we can’t achieve sustainability right now and what to do about it

Laurie Parma
4 min readMar 22, 2024

On the overlooked catalyst for sustainable change.

When 2023 hit the hottest year on record, sustainability became a concrete reality for leaders across the globe. While many still only respond to the pressure of regulations and government targets, others now recognise the need to adapt because continuing with “business as usual” will not allow them to survive. In either case, the importance of minimising environmental impact is warming up.

To reward the difficulty of taking that first step forward, I wish that achieving sustainability goals was a simple update to an organisation’s operations. Alas, it is not. More than any other type of change, it requires a fundamental shift in organisational culture, processes, and behaviours.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

If you have ever tried to change your own habits — be they related to food, relationships, or physical activity — you know how challenging it can be. Changing habits requires a strong commitment and energy until what was once a goal becomes a new normal that requires little thought. The complexities of changing how an organisation operates are far more challenging.

Why underestimating change management fails sustainability?

Change management is the discipline that focuses on preparing, equipping, and supporting individuals and organisations to adopt and embrace change. It provides a structured approach to managing “the people side of change”, ensuring that everyone involved understands the need for change, is actively involved in the process, and is supported throughout the transition.

When it comes to sustainability initiatives, the type of change required might not only be profound but also require a different way of envisioning the future of the business altogether. That’s why change management will be essential. It will address the human aspect of change, recognise that people are at the heart of any organisational transformation and that their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours must align with sustainability goals. Without effective change management, sustainability initiatives are at risk of failure due to resistance, lack of understanding, and inadequate preparation.

Where to start? The Theory of Change

Theory of Change is a framework that can guide organisations in their sustainability journey. It provides a roadmap for achieving desired outcomes by identifying the necessary steps and understanding the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and impacts. By implementing the Theory of Change using change management principles, organisations can ensure that the human element is considered throughout the process.

For example, let’s consider an organisation with the goal of reducing its carbon footprint. The Theory of Change would outline the necessary steps, such as implementing energy-efficient practices, modifying the supply chain, and updating the entire product life cycle.

Deploying change with people in mind

The change in this example will generate an extensive amount of work, in addition to having to maintain the usual business operations. What’s usually overlooked at this stage, is the impact on people. Change can pose threats to various fundamental human needs, and that’s why we usually resist or ignore it. For example, it could jeopardise factors such as:

  1. Working relationships
  2. People’s position within the company
  3. Their perception of fairness
  4. The required competencies and skills to perform at previous levels
  5. The comforting predictability and reliability of our work

Under such threats, it’s understandable that anyone would be hesitant to embrace change, particularly on the scale needed for sustainable growth. Because these fundamental human needs are hardwired into our brains, more on this in another article, disregarding them is a recipe for disaster. This is why many change projects fail and result in limited adoption and minimal impact. Change management ensures that everyone understands the purpose and benefits of sustainability, receives adequate training and support, and has opportunities for input and feedback. This fosters their engagement and commitment to sustainability goals, leading to meaningful change.

What do I risk if I do not address the human aspect of change?

Implementing sustainable practices without involving any sort of change programme, is the surest way that people will “love to hate it”. When people do not buy into change, they are likely to oppose total resistance to it. Instead of gaining traction, the initiative risks acquiring a bad reputation which is then extremely difficult to revert back from. Organisations faced with this scenario, usually struggle to achieve meaningful outcomes (if any).

In contrast, recognising the significance of change management can be a game changer. When organisations developed a comprehensive change management plan and effectively communicated the benefits of sustainability, addressed employee concerns, and provided the necessary support, they successfully integrated sustainable practices into their operations. In addition to having a positive impact on the environment, these initiatives also lead to higher employee engagement.

Take home

Sustainability is difficult enough to achieve, it would be near impossible without change management. Change managers play a vital role in driving the adoption and integration of sustainable practices within organisations. They ensure that employees understand the need for change, can contribute their knowledge, are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills, and are supported throughout the transformation process. By incorporating change management principles into sustainability initiatives, organisations can overcome resistance, foster employee engagement, and achieve long-term success in their sustainability journey.

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Laurie Parma

Neuropsychology researcher, turned organisational culture and change strategist. Moonlighting sustainable finance researcher.