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Key Practice Area - Sustainability - Building A Best-in-class Sustainability Program
Key Practice Area: Sustainability

Building a Best-in-class Sustainability Program

Jan. 2011

Learn best practices from industry leaders on how to start and manage a corporate sustainability program.


NAEM’s conference ‘Essential Steps for Building a Best in Class Corporate Sustainability Program’ in April 2010 was designed to help corporate EHS and sustainability professionals take sustainability from principle to practice. In this section, you will find:

Presentations: Featured Presentations include:

  • "Developing Sustainability Goals and Metrics" by Joe Bialowitz, Project Manager, Environmental Stewardship, Kaiser Permanente
  • "Systemic Thinking: Applying a New Mental Tool for Managing Sustainability" by Nancy Roberts, Instructor, Dominican University Green MBA Program
  • "Supply Chain Sustainability: Matching Goals Up and Down the Supply Chain" by Rodney Davis, Senior Manager Global Sustainability, Mattel Inc.

White Paper: "How to Build a Sustainability Strategy" by Bruce Klafter, head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at Applied Materials, Inc.


Click here to view the presentations from the April 2010 "Essential Steps for Building a Best in Class Corporate Sustainability Program" conference. This content is freely available to NAEM members only. If you are not an NAEM member and wish to purchase a copy of these presentations, please contact Briana Warner at

White Paper

How to Build a Sustainability Strategy

by Bruce Klafter

Whether you’re re-examining your sustainability program or just getting started, it’s important to take a step back and think about it from a strategic standpoint before you dive right into initiatives; because at some point you will need to articulate the big picture or vision for the programs, whether to maintain momentum or gain further support internally. Here are a few suggestions to help guide your thinking as you tackle sustainability at your company.

Step one: Shifting the thinking from risk to opportunity

A sustainability strategy provides a chance to both improve risk mitigation and to identify new business opportunities. The emphasis today on the opportunity side of the ledger represents a major shift in sustainability thinking. Do not neglect the risk side, however, because your company must, at the very least, be in compliance with regulatory requirements before you can claim to have gone beyond compliance. On the opportunity side, it’s important to keep in mind that most initiatives are entirely voluntary in nature; there will be no external driver in many cases, although customer requirements and other competitive factors are certainly compelling.

Risks Opportunities


  • Legal compliance
  • Reputation protection
  • Labor and Ethics
  • Political compliance

Cost savings

  • Reduced energy costs
  • Reduced material inputs
  • Reduced waste disposal costs

Reduced Process Disruption

  • Reduced supply chain disruption
  • Increased supply chain security

Enhanced Workforce

  • Recruiting and retention of top talent
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Reduced absenteeism

Production Improvements

  • Increased production efficiency
  • Process optimization

Revenue Opportunities

  • Product innovation
  • New market share
  • New customer attraction

Business Model Innovation

Step two: Laying the foundation for sustainable operations

As a first step, it’s important to understand how your company is performing in terms of the key sustainability metrics. From that foundation, you can work through a process that includes brainstorming, benchmarking, planning and articulating your aspirations in terms of a vision that can later be translated into specific projects. Internal and external communications regarding those plans will help fuel an ongoing process. The steps look like this:

  • Data Gathering
  • Analysis
  • Benchmarking
  • Planning
  • Vision and Principles
  • Goal-setting
  • Implementation
    • Environmental Management Systems
    • Internal Operations
    • Product Development
    • Supply Chain
    • Customer Service
  • Communications
    • Internal
    • External
    • Stakeholder Engagement

Step three: Getting others involved

It is essential to get input from key participants because you can use this process to drive consensus around programs and then garner buy-in as you move forward. Asking open-ended questions is really important since you want different perspectives rather than just reactions to your ideas. If you put a particular project in front of them, you will simply get their opinion about whether or not they like it. But if you start more broadly, particularly if you can provide some background, context and benchmarks, this discussion becomes strategic in nature. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Assemble your team: Figure out who needs to endorse a program and make an overall commitment, and then get them in a room to start talking about the subject.
  2. Start talking: Some sample questions include:
    • What’s all this ‘green’ all about?
    • What’s our carbon footprint?
    • How ‘green’ (or not) are our products?
    • How can our company develop an overall strategy that capitalizes upon and enhances the existing ‘green’ elements of our business?
    • Where do we stand relative to competitors?
    • How do we set goals in these areas?
    • Who should we partner with?
    • How should our commitment to sustainability and our targets be expressed?
    • How educated and involved are our employees?
    • What are the best ways to implement that strategy in the areas of facilities, products and in our workforce?
    • What do our stakeholders think about our performance?
    • How should a coherent and effective marketing program be developed?
  3. Obtain a commitment to proceed: Establish a plan for future steps, including regular meetings
  4. Start expanding the circle: Educate more employees and invite them to discuss and participate. Every internal stakeholder has a role to play, including:
    • Product groups
    • Supply chain
    • Marketing and sales
    • Information Technology
    • Facilities and Real Estate
    • Research & Development
    • Manufacturing
    • Administrative (HR, Finance)

Most external stakeholders are potential partners as well, such as:

    • Direct suppliers
    • Indirect suppliers
    • Customers
    • Trade Associations
    • Shareholders and other interested parties

Many commentators aptly describe sustainability as a "journey" and that is true for most companies because the process itself is a learning process. You will learn more about the nature of your company, more about the interests and skills of your fellow employees and something about the needs and interests of other stakeholders.

About the author
Bruce Klafter is Managing Director for Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) at Applied Materials, Inc., where he is responsible for assisting business units worldwide with compliance, industrial hygiene, product safety and various strategic initiatives. Additionally, Mr. Klafter is head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability for the company, where he manages a wide variety of reporting, employee engagement and other strategic projects aimed at enhancing the company’s global citizenship programs. Prior to joining Applied Materials in August 2000, Mr. Klafter was chair of the Environmental Group at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, a top 100 U.S. law firm in San Francisco, California.

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