Sharing Sustainability through Control ActivitiesBy
A study highlights three methods for implementing sustainability activities that can lead to greater connection with other operations.
One important question arises when organizations implement sustainability practices and their control tools in response to social and environmental issues: Can these practices and tools actually change the usual ways of doing business? Mixed answers have emerged from studies examining how sustainability control tools could help achieve sustainability goals and improve social and environmental performance. I conducted a study that looked at the question from a different angle, approaching sustainability control as something people do rather than as something organizations have.
The yearlong study focused on the activities carried out by managers of a French company as they developed sustainability control tools. Findings showed that managers deployed sustainability control tools through different sets of activities, through which they stabilized connections between the sustainability practice and other practices by: (1) reassembling (using an existing tool or process in a different way), (2) expanding (incorporating a new tool into existing activities), and (3) rippling (integrating sustainability into tools already shared by multiple areas or practices). (For the full study, see “Sharing Sustainability through Sustainability Control Activities: A Practice-Based Analysis,” Management Accounting Research, March 2021.)
One instance in which the company in my study adapted an existing tool for sustainability activities was with an indicator of electricity consumption. The company’s sustainability manager needed a tool for that as part of its sustainability reporting efforts. She and the facilities manager decided to use the quantity of electricity consumed as reported in the monthly electricity bill. They then adjusted that element so that it was consistent with the sustainability reporting rules (e.g., perimeter, publication in the annual report, etc.). Finally, they connected the sustainability reporting to other elements of reporting, such as measurement of carbon dioxide emissions.
Thus, the sustainability manager captured an existing element and bridged the activities of managing facilities and the sustainability activities. The facilities manager came to participate in the sustainability reporting because he was in charge of managing the indicator. As such, he became accountable for its evolution and for a part of the organization’s environmental performance.
By building on an existing element, the sustainability manager capitalized on systems already in place. This made it easier to recruit participants for the sustainability reporting effort and create a company-wide network of actors. Building on existing systems also enabled the sustainability reporting to be adapted to established ways of doing business.
The risk in this method is that it will result in controlling a toned-down version of sustainability—one that doesn’t challenge taken-for-granted ways of doing business.
Reassembling rests on a delicate balance: If compromise is necessary for sustainability control to be performed, the amount of compromise that’s acceptable depends on the actors’ interpretations and constraints.
An example in the study of expanding in the company is when the sustainability manager created a new tool, a sustainability risk map, for procurements, which would combine sustainability with the procurement function’s existing ways of doing business.
For example, the risk map was structured based on the procurement function’s families (e.g., intellectual services, advertising products, etc.) and classified risks in coherence with sustainability categories (e.g., environmental, social, economics, ethical, etc.). Once the element was stabilized as a genuine sustainability-procurement hybrid, it was presented to purchasers to be incorporated into procurement activities.
It’s important that these tools are incorporated into the company’s operations. They won’t be effective if they aren’t integrated properly. In this case, purchasers declared that “[these criteria] had no influence on the [buying] decision” and that “it was just a piece of information, nothing more.” It appears that although a new hybrid element was created and presented to the purchasers, it was hardly used in their day-to-day activities, an important step in the enactment of sustainability control. As a result, the new tool existed but was merely influencing activities.
There were a number of reasons for why it wasn’t more effective. One is that it wasn’t clear to purchasers how they should use it when making procurement decisions. Another possibility is that the sustainability manager focused on creating the tool but didn’t promote its integration into procurement activities, so there was no clear long-term reminder or motivation for purchasers to use it. Perhaps with unambiguous procedures and continued support, use of the tool would have become a routine part of procurement activities.
An example of rippling occurred when sustainability was incorporated into managers’ road maps, which were used by the management control team to control strategy implementation. The sustainability manager collaborated with management controllers to integrate sustainability objectives and performance targets into the road maps. As a result, the new sustainability goals and priorities became part of the control process of strategic activities. This caused a ripple effect, affecting all activities that were monitored by the road maps. The second step was to work with the managers of these activities to determine how they planned to achieve the sustainability goals they were assigned.
The outcome was the consolidation of a triangular control dynamic between the sustainability manager, the management controllers, and the operational managers. It incorporated social and environmental performance in existing control tools and activities, and it created new lines of cooperation between the actors.
In this rippling, the sustainability manager took advantage of the stabilized configuration of activities. By turning to the management control team, she capitalized on existing control activities to extend sustainability control to the strategic activities already impacted by the road maps. As such, the rippling strategy was quite powerful in performing sustainability control. It fostered sustainability controlling of goals and performance levels in other activities and enabled a wide scope of control by reaching many activities in the organization.
It’s important to note, however, that during the period of study, this change affected management control activities only faintly. Sustainability didn’t spread to other management control activities such as budgeting. This created a control dissonance and sent mixed signals to other activities that, in the longer term, could limit the impact of sustainability control. If sustainability control tools aren’t linked to activities, they will be limited to stand-alone exercises that can’t truly influence other parts of organizations.
Overall, the study shows that sustainability controls facilitated the involvement of organizational members in sustainability activities and the creation of a company-wide network of participants in the sustainability practice. Sustainability control activities created new interrelations among formerly disconnected activities (e.g., facilities management activities, procurement activities, and management control activities). By coupling the sustainability practice with other practices, sustainability control activities made sustainability more stable in the organization and helped perpetuate it. The activities also helped move sustainability from the periphery to the center of organizational activities.