Advanced stakeholder management

How Stakeholder Engagement Can Support Sustainability Measures

We look at 8 ways stakeholder engagement can help to support sustainability practices in organizations.

Vibrant urban street with brightly coloured buildings and people walking along pavement.

There’s a growing expectation that organizations not only consider sustainability when making decisions but actively promote and pursue sustainable outcomes. In fact, 85% of investors consider ESG factors when making investments and consumers (especially younger generations) increasingly make decisions with sustainability in mind.

So, how do you ensure that the measures you put in place are actually sustainable? 

Anyone can talk about having a sustainable vision and change their practices with the hope that they do some good. But without proper stakeholder engagement, there’s no guarantee that your sustainability measures will do any real good. 

Let’s take a closer look at 8 ways stakeholder engagement can help your organization or project become more sustainable.

1. Define Sustainability For Each New Project

Illustration showing three houses, side by side.

Sustainability means different things to different people and organizations. For example, you might use one or more of the following definitions:

  • Sustainability balances environmental, economic, and societal needs
  • Sustainable development aims to meet current needs, while considering future needs
  • Sustainability means that you can maintain or improve the availability of resources or conditions
  • Sustainability ensures that any business practices, communities, and social institutions can remain viable, long-term
  • Sustainable organizations help work towards the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals

But what does sustainability look like for your specific project, community groups, and region? 

Stakeholder engagement can help your organization define what sustainability looks like for your stakeholders — and use this definition to guide your practices.

2. Get Feedback to Discover What’s Relevant

Sustainability is a broad topic (as you can see from the above definitions!), and your organization could implement a neverending list of sustainable measures, like:

  • Sustainable water management
  • Recycled packaging
  • Carbon neutral production
  • Improved health and safety
  • Sustainable supply chains
  • Greater employee diversity
  • Human rights protections
  • And much more!

So, which approach is most relevant for your work and your stakeholders?

Stakeholder engagement allows you to identify the issues that matter most to your stakeholders so that you can focus on these as your top priorities. You might run a survey, ask for feedback during a meeting or interview, or look at your analytics to understand the topics that generate more engagement.

3. Check Your Assumptions

Don’t assume that the sustainability measures you’ve used previously are going to work the same for other locations, times, and projects. By engaging with your stakeholders, you can begin to understand the factors that are unique to them — and allow their input to influence your decisions so that you can be more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.

4. Include More Perspectives

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Stakeholder engagement can inform your decisions and actions by first engaging with all the key stakeholder groups that are impacted by the organization, project, or work. These stakeholders might include industry and trade associations, NGOs, suppliers, employees, governments, communities, consumers, academics, environmental groups, community groups, and regulatory agencies.

By keeping them informed and asking for their input, you can tap into a much broader range of perspectives that can reveal:

  • Potential negative impacts on the environment or society
  • Emerging issues that could put the project at risk
  • Cultural issues that need to be considered
  • Alternatives that might be more sustainable
  • Compliance and regulatory issues that need to be adhered to

Plus, these insights can help increase the likelihood that your sustainability measures are designed to work in the long term.

5. Reconcile Competing Views

Nearly every organization will need to work with multiple stakeholder types, often with differing viewpoints and expectations. This includes views on what’s sustainable, what isn’t, and what issues your organization should focus on fixing.

Stakeholder engagement can give you a process for reconciling these competing viewpoints. By identifying stakeholders and mapping them (by interest, impact, and influence), you can better understand your different stakeholder groups, and ensure you consult with the right people. And even get them involved in coming to a final decision. This can help you to reach an outcome that’s sustainable for a greater number of stakeholders — and justify your decision, even if it goes against what some people wanted.

Stakeholder Engagement & Sustainability Example: Mining Companies

One study looked at several mining companies in South Africa that implemented corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in their host communities, with the intention of achieving economic, social, and environmental sustainability. In each case, stakeholders were actively engaged in project planning because their involvement in decision-making was essential for buy-in, collaboration, and involvement. The study recommended that managers work to educate stakeholders on mining issues and balance diverse stakeholder expectations in order to support sustainable CSR outcomes.

6. Build Accountability

Four people watch as a man draws a graph on a large sheet of paper

There’s a need for greater accountability in sustainable business practices (outside of existing regulatory and legislative requirements). In other words — how do we make sure that companies are genuinely having a positive impact and doing what they promise to do?

Stakeholder engagement helps to address this need by:

  • Gathering data on engagement activities, feedback, and outcomes
  • Demonstrating how your organization has engaged with stakeholders to ensure better-informed decisions
  • Keeping stakeholders informed through regular reports that demonstrate how their input has impacted outcomes

Regular, transparent reporting helps keep organizations accountable to creating genuine, sustainable change — and in turn, this can have other benefits like increased stakeholder trust, support, and license to operate. And these benefits can be critical to the success of a project.

7. Increase Legitimacy

It’s worth considering that stakeholder engagement is actually a requirement of some frameworks and standards, like ISO 26000: Social Responsibility. By engaging with your stakeholders, you could meet external requirements that help to increase the perceived legitimacy of your organization — and your sustainability measures.

8. Build Lasting Relationships

Sustainability is also worth considering from a corporate or operational perspective. In other words, can an organization continue to operate over a long period of time? Stakeholder engagement can play a role in this, too. By developing strong relationships with stakeholders, organizations can minimize risk, identify emerging opportunities sooner, and adapt to changes in the operational environment.

Learn More

Want to learn more about stakeholder engagement or sustainability? Check out these other resources:

3 Public Participation Examples in LA-based Sustainability Projects

How Citizen Outreach is Driving These Sustainability Initiatives in Texas

The Role of Stakeholder Engagement in DEI Programs

Principles of Good Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder Engagement Examples and Successful Campaigns