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Sustainability Maturity Model Explained: How far do you go for the planet?

Measuring your activities against the Sustainability Maturity Path provides a clarifying look at your sustainability goals. Learn more in this article.

Capacity & Awareness

There’s no silver bullet for a sustainable business. Becoming a sustainable, or more sustainable, business, is a process.

Becoming more sustainable: The Sustainability Flywheel

We define the process of becoming more sustainable through the Sustainability Flywheel:

To improve your performance, you need to analyze your baseline emissions. This will help you understand the hotspots in your environmental performance – and thus help you to improve on it.

But every improvement also brings with it a new baseline – and new hotspots. So far, so simple.

Sustainability Flywheel
Sustainability Flywheel

Sustainability Maturity Model: More than just lip service

The Flywheel is a framework to improve your environmental performance based on data. However many processes require more than just data. Sustainable change can only be driven when the three value pillars of a sustainable business are aligned: Motivation, Accountability, and Ownership. That’s what we’re assessing with the Sustainability Maturity Path, a model created by PWC and adopted by us.

Sustainability Maturity Path

Motivation: Why are you acting on your environmental performance?

The motivation behind a business’ environmental decisions is the key to understanding its activities. In the beginning, activities are entirely driven by external market forces (regulations, customer demand), while in later stages, the company is internally driven to create sustainable change.

Stage 0: Disregard

A company doesn’t act with the environment in mind. Since most industries have some form of environmental regulation, this would be an exception

Stage 1: Compliance

If a company’s environmental decision-making is driven by compliance, it’s solely to reduce operational risk and to comply with regulations.

Stage 2: Obligation

When a company complies with the expectations of outside market forces, it is motivated by Obligation. That can be the case when customers are demanding certain products, proof, or validations. The company is not motivated by internal forces yet but by outside market forces. However, it is acting more proactively than just to comply with regulations.

Stage 3: Efficiency

Many companies realize that Environmental Process Optimization can lead to operational cost savings. That doesn’t mean they’re purpose-driven, but they actively try to reduce harm to become more efficient. That is usually the stage in which full-time sustainability personnel take ownership of the processes (more on ownership later).

Stage 4: Leadership

When a company actively pursues sustainable innovation and views it as brand enhancement, it starts to be driven more from an internal perspective. The leadership team is highly bought into sustainability as a management philosophy, and sustainability becomes a driver for the long-term viability of the business. Innovative products or business models are actively pursued.

Stage 5: Purpose

Purpose-driven companies are aiming to create value for society and the environment beyond business economics. They are often founded with that purpose specifically in mind. Sustainability is not a factor to consider, but the main factor in any decision made in the business. That doesn’t mean that the company’s not aiming to be profitable – it simply means that compromises are the exception, not the norm.


Beginners Guide:

Learn to create products – fit to fight climate change. In this guide, we share tips from product designers. And the 3 steps to creating environmentally sustainable products – guided by environmental data.

Ecochain Beginners guide product design with environment in mind

How to design – with the environment in mind.

Qualifying factor: Accountability

When talking to business leaders and owners, most companies will say that they are motivated by purpose or leadership. And are thus in the higher ranks of the Sustainability Maturity Path.

While the motivation itself can be hard to measure, some hard qualifying factors need to be met to reach the next stage in the maturity model.

One of these factors is Accountability. Are there Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for environmental activities in the company?

Stage 1: Compliance

In the compliance phase, no environmental KPIs are defined. Compliance is simply delivered ad-hoc with minimum legal requirements.

Stage 2: Obligation

The only difference between the obligation and the compliance phase is that ad-hoc requests can also be answered for the market. For example, a customer requesting an EPD.

Stage 3: Efficiency

Environmental KPIs are defined on a functional level. Operational decisions are partially influenced by environmental KPIs.

Stage 4: Leadership

There are top-level KPIs for the company’s environmental performance. Management is partially measured by environmental KPI. Incentive systems are strongly influenced by environmental KPIs.

Step 5: Purpose

Environmental KPIs are defined for decision-making on every level. Environmental considerations outweigh economic considerations.

Qualifying factor: Ownership

Who owns sustainability in your organization? Many companies claim to be purpose-driven or sustainable leaders, but it’s hard to believe if no one is dedicated to the task.

Stage 1: Compliance

Environmental topics are ad-hoc and owned by whoever is responsible (legal, operations).

Stage 2: Obligation

Sustainability is owned by QHSE (Quality, Health, Safety, Environment) managers in functional ownership, or by part-time sustainability managers.

Stage 3: Efficiency

Sustainability is owned by full-time, dedicated sustainability personnel.

Stage 4: Leadership

Sustainability is owned by top-level management, with a dedicated executive responsible on the C-Level (Chief Sustainability Officer).

Stage 5: Purpose

Environmental decision-making happens on every level of the company, and everyone is responsible for environmental performance.

How can you empower (even more) sustainable change?

I hope that the Sustainability Maturity Path inspires you to examine your organizations. Where can you improve your organizational setup to create more value for the planet?

Zazala Quist

Hi, I'm Zazala - former content writer at Ecochain. My goal: make difficult sustainability concepts - understandable to all.

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