Before you can tap sustainability’s potential to drive growth, you need to acknowledge what has held you back thus far.

Sustainability is a business imperative, yet more than half of CEOs rank it as their greatest organizational challenge, according to a study by the IBM Institute for Business Value. A primary challenge they cite is “clearly defining and measuring ROI.” As sustainability becomes a staple of boardroom discussions, public-facing promises and organizational assessment, how can enterprises turn their ambitions into action?

As a leader of global sustainability services and alliances at IBM, Hinish doesn’t just want to help companies answer that question. She wants to reframe the entire conversation.

Hinish uses her platform to guide business leaders toward more sustainable ways of operating. A descendant of farmers and a thought leader on supply chain innovation, she considers herself a steward of the earth. She also seeks to build stronger ties between organizations and the communities they serve. “Businesses can’t succeed in societies that are failing,” she says. “They have a huge role to play in transforming and moving toward more sustainable ways of working.”

This sentiment is the foundation of “transformational sustainability”, which occurs when practices of responsibility and resiliency become an integral part of an organization’s business strategy. More than an initiative, it is core to the values of the company, where “people, planet, profit and impact sit at the center of every decision,” Hinish says.

This is a step change from more traditional metrics like net-zero carbon emissions. “A lot of businesses engage in carbon tunnel vision, in which they forget what surrounds carbon output: affected communities, ocean health, biodiversity — all the things that are important beyond planting trees and reducing emissions,” Hinish says. The ROI of this model is what she calls “community resilience,” or the long-term wellbeing of people writ large. Too often, organizations get caught up in operationalizing a high-profit, low-risk business model, and they forget that focusing on the societies they serve can, in and of itself, drive ROI.

“All of this creates a symbiotic relationship to business operations,” Hinish says. “If you’re fundamentally a bad corporate citizen, you can’t thrive and succeed.” So where do you begin? First, acknowledge that you cannot do this alone. “Sustainability is a team sport,” Hinish says. “When you think about the human emotions that are built into strategic relationships, trust is really important.” When companies incorporate societal impact into their business model, they earn cooperation and respect. In other words: Do good in the world, and good comes back to you.

From there, evaluate how your organization can adopt the following three enablers in its strategy. “Yes, we are at an inflection point,” Hinish says. “But the good news is, we’ve never been smarter. We have the technology right at our fingertips. And we have the ability to work together to make the sort of change that we need to design a sustainable future.”

Champion cognitive diversity

“Cognitive diversity requires challenging old paradigms, things for which people have typically developed muscle memory,” Hinish says. “When you think about the people who lead with purpose, especially millennials and Gen Zers, they want to work for companies that put purpose-led transformation at the forefront. And when people are happy in their roles, it’ll show up in the customers they serve and the products they design.”

Invite people from across your organization — with different disciplines, backgrounds and knowledge areas — to design and operationalize your sustainability strategy. “You have to build a longer table where everyone has access and a voice to provide input, not only on the design of products and services, but on your brand’s journey,” Hinish says. Big picture, she says, “You have to put empathy and ethical innovation at the center of what you do and the decisions that you make.”

Go deep on data

Your journey to sustainability at scale starts and ends with data. “More importantly, you need to connect this [data] in a way that it almost creates this seamless green thread,” Hinish says. This is where technology steps in. “Think about all of the connection points that you actually need to wrap your hands around — data collection, cleansing, aggregation, automation — just to get a view on current state.”

Once you have what Hinish describes as a “single pane of glass,” then “the next step is using ethical AI and exponential technology to put all of that good ESG decision making at scale into action. This is not only within your four walls but across your global supply chains, and all the way upstream in sourcing and procurement.”

Embrace a partnership ecosystem

We can work together at scale and use technology as a great connector,” Hinish says. “As a technology company that’s been in business for 111 years, IBM has basically done business with everyone on Earth.” Today’s IBM’s partnership ecosystem includes leaders like EY, Salesforce, SAP, AWS, Microsoft and Oracle.

The importance of a partnership ecosystem is also championed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (link resides outside of ibm.com), a consortium of 200 businesses, of which IBM is a member. Coalitions like the council and IBM’s own collective should inspire enterprises about their own potential to participate in transformative partnerships. Speaking to every business leader, Hinish offers a simple message: “It is our responsibility to answer this call.”

Next steps

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