Sustainability Action Plan: guidance and template

By | 8 minute read | April 1, 2022

Circle Bridge in Copenhagen

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 environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

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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 two to five-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, they are 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 contributing 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, to change 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 it can be transformational as it requires a top-down approach with cultural change, realignment 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 levels, committees and even the community (depending on the sector and type of organization) to establish targets and accountabilities. At the center 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 support 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:

Stakeholder group Example Function
Committees or subcommittees established Environmental Stewardship Committee Provides viewpoints from various parts of the organization and sometimes the wider community in relation to how certain initiatives are likely to impact or benefit the group.
Finance Chief Financial Officer Provides financial forecasting and advises on necessary budget to implement the requires actions to achieve objectives in the Sustainability Action Plan. They play a key role in advocating for the organization’s sustainable financial success and understanding the cost-benefit of implementing energy-saving measures.
Operations Facilities Manager Advises on shared services and utilities such as telecommunications, water and electricity and holds the relationship with these suppliers should any changes need to be made.
Procurement Procurement Operations Manager Manages an organization’s supply chain and can therefore advise on partners and practices and establish SLAs in line with the Sustainability Action Plan. Ensures suppliers of goods and services to the organization reflect any objectives of the organization’s sustainability commitment.
Risk and compliance Chief Legal and Risk Officer Assists with due diligence process for suppliers and advises on reputational and regulatory risks when progressing through the Sustainability Action Plan.
Energy and utilities Energy Manager Advises on the current state of energy efficiency for the organization and other conservation and energy efficiency measures the organization can take to achieve its objectives.

Establishing benchmarks

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 center 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:

  • Composting
  • 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

Property developers and organizations

  • Optimizing HVAC equipment performance
  • Using local labor and materials
  • Incorporating water and waste reuse strategies
  • Ensuring sustainability is part of client consultation and scoping
  • Incentivizing staff remote-work opportunities

Manufacturing

  • 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

Structure of a Sustainability Action Plan

Whilst the structure, inclusions and scale of a Sustainability 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:

Sustainability values

Background on the organization’s view of sustainability and its core values which motivate the development of the Sustainability Action Plan.

Executive message

Endorsement at the C-Level usually from the CEO, outlining the organization’s commitment to sustainability.

Mandatory frameworks

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.

Consultation process

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.

Outcomes

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.”
  • Action
    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.”
  • Target
    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.”
  • Responsibility
    Assigning champions to action the targets could include listing departments or position titles.
  • Timeframe
    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.