COVID-19 has caused abrupt and immense changes in corporate direction and operations across Canadian workplaces. However, it has not succeeded in diminishing the call for companies to accelerate their corporate sustainability or ESG (environmental, social, governance) responsibilities.
According to the Canadian findings of a 2020 Edelman report, 95% of institutional investor respondents expect companies to intensify ESG integration across their operations and leadership1, even amid COVID-19. Additionally, as the Millenial and Gen Z generations continue to make up a greater percentage of the workforce (estimated to be 72% by 2029), ESG leadership is becoming of greater importance when choosing an employer, as reported in Mercer Global’s “ESG as a Workforce Strategy” study2.
“When it comes to corporate sustainability planning, it can be difficult to know where to start, or what to focus your efforts on,” said R. Jason Ashdown, Co-Founder; Chief Sustainability Officer, Skyline Group of Companies (Skyline), which acquires, manages, develops, and offers investments in real estate and clean energy assets. Its audiences include 900+ staff, 32,000+ residential tenants, 1,000+ commercial/retail tenants, and 4,500+ investors across Canada.
A legacy of sustainable practices
Skyline is no stranger to integrating sustainability into its company practices. Its efforts are a key component of its corporate culture and have been awarded with national and industry recognition. With its sustainability initiatives, it hopes to inspire and influence positive change on both an industry and individual level.
Skyline’s earliest sustainability initiatives included volunteerism and donation to charities that directly helped some of the tenants living in Skyline’s buildings. These efforts naturally evolved and expanded over time. When COVID-19 hit Canada in early 2020, and on throughout the year, Skyline made further adjustments to its sustainability efforts to focus on sectors that were in dire need of help. It launched a week-long video campaign fundraiser for youth mental health programs, partnered with a non-profit landlord on a permanent supportive housing project, and saved 311 tenancies through its tenant assistance program, R.I.S.E.
Ashdown offers the following guidelines as a foundation for companies who wish to create, polish, or expand upon their own sustainability initiatives.
Understand the bigger picture and keep it in mind at all times
While it might seem practical for a company to start with tactics first, taking a step back and creating an overall sustainability theme is the better place to start. A company’s core purpose can help guide the creation of this theme, which can then be broken down into distinct focus areas.
“We use the theme ‘Recognizing Our Responsibility,’” said Ashdown. “We have a responsibility as a national corporation to go beyond the call of duty and use our platform to make positive, impactful changes in the communities we do business in.”
Beyond its theme, Skyline’s key focus areas are the environment, social responsibility, and corporate governance. Each area then has its own specific measurable objectives.
Committing to corporate sustainability goals means weighing and assessing every business decision and policy to determine its alignment with those goals.
Buy-in from all stakeholders is important—and it starts from within
In 2020, Ashdown, formerly Chief Operating Officer at Skyline, formally changed his title to Chief Sustainability Officer. The title change sent a message to Skyline’s audiences—notably its staff across Canada—that its commitment to sustainability was a priority at the highest level of the company.
This was followed by the hiring of two additional full-time Sustainability team members, as well as the launch of an expansive internal ESG Taskforce comprised of representatives across every part of the business.
“Each of a company’s stakeholders should be considered a Sustainability Partner; for Skyline, that includes staff, investors, tenants, suppliers, and the greater communities in which we do business,” said Ashdown.
“Our staff play a pivotal role in making sure we reach our sustainability goals. By getting them engaged and excited about sustainability, they become influencers, making it much easier for our other audiences to follow suit.”
Ashdown cited staff buy-in as one of the reasons for launching an ESG Taskforce, noting that when all parts of the company have a place at the table in deciding how Skyline carries out its initiatives, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to those practices, which flows through to how other stakeholders interact with and perceive the company.
Formalize your efforts to ensure accountability
A formalized Sustainability Plan is an important step in communicating the importance a company is placing on sustainability.
Earlier this year, Skyline released its 2021 Sustainability Plan, which was produced by all leaders within the company and outlines Skyline’s major ESG objectives.
“2021 is a pivotal year for our sustainability objectives,” said Ashdown.
“We’re using it as a benchmarking year against which subsequent years will be measured.”
With a formalized document outlining specific and measurable objectives, as well as the methods in which their success will be measured, the company is more likely to be kept accountable toward reaching those objectives.
Avoid perfection paralysis
Lastly, but perhaps most important, is the notion of striving for impact, not perfection. Companies may avoid putting a sustainability plan in place simply because of concerns they may be investing their efforts in practices that may soon become outdated, or being called out for even small flaws in their procedures.
“We will never be perfect,” said Ashdown, “but we constantly strive to be better. We prize effort over perfection, and that is why some consider Skyline a trailblazer. If you wait until the ‘perfect’ technologies or advances come along, or if you are paralyzed by the fear of not having the most perfectly sustainable practices, you’ll never get started.”