This article has been written in collaboration with Sami El Rafei, Junior Sustainability Consultant at Nexio Projects.
Progress rarely follows a linear path, it’s an adventure filled with unexpected twists, challenges, and breakthroughs. Knowing this, any good explorer, will ask themselves: What essentials should we pack for this successful journey? Which tools and resources might still be missing from our toolkit? And what enduring lessons should we carry with us at each stage of this exploration?
It is critical to recognise the stages of a sustainability journey from compliance to purpose. At Nexio Projects we have redesigned a sustainability maturity curve which we use now to support clients through the process.
In the realm of sustainable business growth, we found our answers in a framework called the Sustainability Maturity Curve (SMC). You can think of the SMC as a trusty roadmap. This valuable guide not only lays out the steps that companies must navigate at each stage of sustainable strategic development but also points out the significant milestones to aim for along the way. Essentially, it provides guidance to the full development and maturity of sustainability within our organisations.
Recently, we have undertaken a thoughtful revision of both these maturity stages and the pillars underpinning sustainable growth. The aim is to better mirror the dynamic nature of sustainable progress and to successfully equip companies with the guidance they would need at each phase.
The 6 Pillars
Nexio Project’s Sustainability Maturity Curve is driven by the following 6 pillars:
- Business Model;
- Ratings & Certifications;
- Value Chain Collaboration.
Pillar #1. Motivation
Motivation serves as the North Star guiding companies towards sustainable actions and goals. Motivation can be exhibited across a company, from leadership and/or from employees. It's the driving force that propels an organisation's commitment to sustainability. Initially, external forces guide actions, but companies that find themselves at a higher level of maturity see this motivation coming from within. As businesses embrace the sustainability journey, understanding and harnessing their motivation becomes paramount.
Pillar #2. Governance
For sustainability efforts to take off, accountability must span at all levels of an organisation. Governance and ownership over sustainability practices ensure that every employee, from top to bottom, is committed to making a difference. A collective sense of responsibility throughout this journey is a strong sign that a company’s maturity is on the rise.
Pillar #3. Strategy
Successful journeys require strategic planning as their cornerstone. Incorporating key sustainability factors into organisational policies, procedures, and long-term objectives defines the "what" of the sustainability journey. Embedding sustainability at the core of your organisation ensures sustainability is part of the long-term strategy of the organisation, paving the way for meaningful change.
Pillar #4. Reporting
Having a robust data management system in place is key for timely performance measurement and effective communication on impact indicators spanning sustainability topics. By evaluating key performance indicators and tracking progress towards sustainability goals, organisations can fine-tune their strategies. This ongoing evaluation not only keeps them on course but also allows for rerouting as environmental, social, and market conditions evolve.
Pillar #5. Ratings & Certifications
Companies aiming for sustainability excellence often seek validation through third-party quality standards. Ratings and certifications demonstrate a commitment to best practices. They can be a powerful symbol of transparency and credibility, as they often come with rigorous standards and guidelines that push companies to continuously improve.
Pillar #6. Value Chain Collaboration
No company is an island. Partnerships and cooperation with upstream and downstream partners, as well as other external stakeholders, are essential to address key sustainability challenges. Collective efforts within and between value chains create a ripple effect, driving change beyond the confines of individual organisations. As bridges are built, the sustainability journey becomes a shared voyage, fostering a sense of collective responsibility for a more sustainable future.
The 5 Stages
Through an analysis of these six pillars, a complete picture can be painted of a company’s current sustainability maturity level. Companies are mapped to a maturity stage for each of pillar and for a final average position by compiling each individual average.
The sustainability maturity curve demonstrates the five levels of progression from compliance, accelerating, optimising, leading and ultimately being purpose-driven, focusing on continuous improvement to maintain a level of maturity and advance to the next stage.
Each level demonstrates a progressive commitment to sustainability, going from meeting the minimum regulatory standards, through to setting goals and targets to taking responsibility for the wider value chain and highly transparent transitioning to a truly purpose-driven organisation. At this level, a company understands its role in the world from a system-thinking perspective by embracing ecological stewardship and circular business models balancing people, planet, and profit.
#Stage 1. Complying
Many organisations focus on meeting sustainability regulations and legislation but do not go beyond that status quo. A complying company has little to no recognisable strategy or management system in place. It does not measure or monitor anything beyond legislative requirements related to sustainability within its operations. However, this approach is risky for European companies since European legislation is evolving rapidly. Staying afloat when the regulatory storm hits will only be possible by striving for higher sustainability maturity levels.
#Stage 2. Accelerating
Organizations face increasing pressure to develop a sustainability management system. To prioritize their efforts, they need a comprehensive understanding of what, where, and why to focus on. Currently, sustainability efforts are ad hoc, unstructured, and decentralized. However, forward-thinking organizations integrate sustainability alongside traditional business considerations.
#Stage 3. Optimising
At this stage, organisations have a robust sustainability management system in place, a clear understanding of their material topics, and a centralised and coordinated approach to internal reporting. Progress is achieved through the continuous improvement of the existing systems and processes already in place.
#Stage 4. Leading
Leading organisations have a comprehensive and structured approach to sustainability, which covers both their own operational footprint and value chain. These companies continuously strive for improvement in their daily operations and provide the resources, expertise and capacity needed for innovation.
#Stage 5. Purpose-Driven
The last stage of the SMC refers to those organisations that approach sustainability from a strategic standpoint and take into full consideration people and the planet alongside profit as core business drivers.
Advancing along the Nexio Projects Sustainability Curve yields key benefits and allows your organisation to address 3 critical questions:
- Clarity: What is your current situation and the one of your peers?
- Visibility: What practical actions are needed to move forward and progress to further stages on the curve?
- Engagement: How is every relevant stakeholder involved in this journey?
Additionally, advancing along a sustainability maturity curve yields 4 key benefits:
- Environmental and Social Impact: Progressively integrating sustainability practices reduces environmental footprint and positively impacts society through ethical and responsible actions.
- Competitive Advantage: Sustainable companies stand out in the market, attracting and reteeing conscious consumers, committed investors, and engaged talents, and staying adaptable to changing industry dynamics.
- Stakeholder Trust and Reputation: Prioritizing sustainability fosters trust and loyalty among customers, employees, and investors, enhancing brand reputation.
- Long-Term Viability and Resilience: Identifying and mitigating risks ensures businesses are better equipped to handle challenges and maintain a lasting positive influence.
How can I get started on this journey?
Rather than treating sustainability as something static, with a clear beginning and end, the Sustainability Maturity Curve portrays the different milestones to be reached. The framework applies to a vast range of organisations, regardless of their size, sector or country and it can help advance the progress towards your sustainability ambitions.
Nexio Projects supports you in making progress along the curve through actionable roadmaps across our range of service offerings. Fill in the questionnaire to discover your current position on the SMC and have a clear picture of what steps to take next in your sustainability journey.