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Rethinking how we engage with sustainability

An image of hands holding up the world with a green background

With Gabrielle Martinovich I Currie

Many organisations respond to sustainability by simply identifying and engaging their stakeholders. This process takes a significant investment of time and resources and is no longer a static exercise.

As a business approach to creating long-term value, sustainability takes into consideration how a given organisation operates in the ecological, social and economic environment. It is built on the assumption that developing such strategies foster company longevity.

COP26 highlighted how we have already surpassed the tipping point and encouraged countries to protect and restore ecosystems, build resilient infrastructure and transition to more sustainable agriculture. Similarly in Australia, 74% of executives believe the world is at a tipping point for responding to climate change compared to just 52% eight months ago.

No longer a nice-to-have, sustainability and stakeholder considerations have been elevated to boardroom tables while stakeholder groups including regulators, shareholders, customers, and employees – are all adding to the pressure to act, demanding more transparency and inclusion in the decision making.

In an environment of escalating and rapid change, we are having to rethink the traditional stakeholder engagement approach, while continuing to build cross-sectoral partnerships between industry, NGOs, government and communities. This includes Incorporating new and diverse perspectives that drive a variety of outcomes from more active group advocacy and improved sustainability plans and strategies.

So why do we do stakeholder engagement? Is it to minimise the risk to our business and project, or are we really asking others for their input so we can collectively make change for a more sustainable future?

Here are three ways to navigate a more sustainable approach in your engagement practice.

1. Refocus on what works

Many industries and organisations have been leading the way with stakeholder advisory forums such as the Dairy Sustainability Consultative Forum and the GHD Animal Ethics Committee which gather insights into priorities and invite challenges supplemented by workshops on specific questions. Perhaps before changing these forums and creating new channels, organisations could leverage what they already do such as engagement surveys and real-time stakeholder feedback and dig deeper into the data. To back this up, having a thorough communication plan for each stakeholder group is critical.

2. Reconnect with stakeholders

We all know that no stakeholder can solve sustainability on their own. Collaboration is critical for efficient sustainability practices. When we don’t collaborate we risk voices being lost and ignored in the decision-making, and the destruction of cultural heritage such as the Aboriginal rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

As engagement practitioners we are always striving to have stakeholders shift from Involve to Collaborate and Empower. To do this we need to view stakeholders’ interests as inputs into a process of change for sustainability, rather than a risk reduction strategy or simple information gathering. It’s about asking ourselves is there a goal for sustainability we can work collectively on, and to consider what we can all do together to drive change for sustainability across our engagement approach.

3. Restart strategy in alignment with SDGs

Restarting a strategy requires a clear ambition and engagement approach with buy-in from others. A framework such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which balances short-and long-term horizons and interests across the value chain is paramount.

By aligning our strategy to the SDGs, we generate a proactive approach to sustainability and stakeholder engagement, where the intention is clear and transparent.

Ultimately, the goal of stakeholder engagement is to harness positive influences and minimise negative influences on a project, organisation, or partnership. To be effective, how we manage the process must be one of continuous improvement where learnings are taken forward to the next project.

Applying a sustainability lens to stakeholder engagement amplifies stakeholder inclusivity with external stakeholders such as community groups, Indigenous Australians and landholders.

How we engage with sustainability determines how we shape environmental resilience, which starts with reducing climate risk and focuses on the preservation of natural capital, lower costs and thriving communities.

It’s time for our conversations to move from agreeing on targets to understanding how to solve tough problems that stand in the way – and shift our good intentions into practice and real impact.

About the Author

Gabrielle MartinovichPrior to joining Currie, Gabrielle spent 12 years consulting in her own practice working with clients across the energy, infrastructure, government and resource recovery sectors. She is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD) and IAP2 Australasia (GIAP2), a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, and co-founder of the IAP2 Australasia Environment and Sustainability Community of Practice.