When culture meets strategy: addressing the number one barrier to embedding sustainability


I recently conducted a series of interviews with the top management of a leading FTSE 250 property company, CLS Holdings, to help formulate and introduce their new sustainability strategy.

Working closely with Rowan Packer, the Sustainability Manager at CLS who commissioned this work, we held individual meetings with the entire senior executive team, including the executive chairman and the CEO, to discuss various topics related to future sustainability initiatives within the business over the next three to five years. Among the many points discussed was the question of what were some of the main barriers to embedding sustainability within the company and how might they be addressed.

Surprisingly, or perhaps rather unsurprisingly, the number one barrier identified was culture. 

There were certain limitations in terms of the “sustainability mindset” within day-to-day operations that several senior executives felt needed to be addressed for sustainability initiatives to truly gain traction.

Granted, CLS is already doing quite a lot in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable energy and general responsible business practices, but the issue here was how could they take their sustainability initiatives to the next level and make it a reflexive part of how they operate.

In one sense, the fact that culture was recognised as a key barrier isn't very surprising as pretty much all change management involves a change of attitudes and behaviour. However, what is surprising is perhaps that not many companies (in the property sector and beyond) directly address the issue of internal culture change as part of their sustainability strategies, or indeed as a specific sustainability challenge facing their businesses.

If pressed, I think most sustainability professionals would acknowledge the significant obstacle that internal culture can present. Yet most of the discourse around, for instance, securing buy-in for corporate sustainability strategy implementation, tends to focus on top-level leadership commitment. And while this is necessary and important, it’s also not sufficient. You also need to secure buy-in from the middle managers in charge of day-to-day operations and the wide base of employees and contractors whose individual choices, creativity and initiative bring your sustainability and responsible business initiatives to life.

Globescan’s most recent State of Sustainable Business Survey, which polled over 300 sustainability professionals last year to capture their views on current sustainability trends, identified “competing internal priorities” as the most commonly cited perceived barrier to better internal engagement and collaboration on sustainability. The report states: “More than budgetary or short-term financial concerns, corporate sustainability efforts are stymied by competing internal priorities. Engaging more functions in sustainability—and fostering more collaborative relationships—may help reduce these barriers.”

I would argue that “competing internal priorities” is simply another expression of a cultural challenge, or the lack of a “sustainability mindset” as one CLS executive put it.

How this type of challenge plays out in real-life might be, for example, in terms of how to convince project or development managers to consider alternative sustainable design principles in their projects, when they potentially view it as an additional risk to the delivery timeline that could have a negative impact on their budgets. Or, how to get very busy property managers to proactively consider new technological solutions at the point of refurbishing or upgrading existing assets, when it requires little or no effort to use tried and trusted methods that involve little or no learning curve or cost justification internally. Such competing internal priorities can mean that very little in practice changes, or change occurs only very slowly, even when positive signals are given from the top and strategic sustainability goals are in place for the business as a whole.

Like muscle memory, the cycle of doing the same thing repeatedly from one project to the next, or indeed one day to the next, produces a type of reflexive behaviour that proceeds without much thought or consideration. This can be especially true in a context where the immediate incentives for taking a different, more sustainable course of action may not be very strong.

There is an often quoted African proverb that says: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I think this maxim applies itself well here. Unless organisations can effectively address cultural barriers to more sustainable ways of working, and get the rank and file of the business to see the importance of this to the long term success of the organisation, then any initiatives introduced will only have a short-term impact or be implemented in a tokenistic rather than systemic manner.

I’d welcome your views on this topic and whether culture change features (explicitly or implicitly) as part of your own sustainability strategy. Please contact me at: yohan.hill@frontier-gp.com with any comments you might have or any examples of methods you employ to address cultural barriers to sustainability within your organisation.


Yohan Hill

Principal Consultant

Frontier GP

T: +44 7515 698871



About the Author

Yohan Hill is a CSR and sustainability consultant with over 15 years’ experience advising some of the world’s leading companies on how to address their material environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities and embed responsible business practices. Yohan is a graduate of the Imperial College London Masters programme in Environmental Technology, and is an Associate Member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).