How project managers can tackle sustainability and CSR

Growing concerns related to the climate and social and economic well-being have become influential for modern consumers. Now, people are more likely than ever to base decisions on their personal values. They want to buy from brands and work with professional partners that align with their own core beliefs, whether that relates to the environment, wildlife conservation, equal economic opportunity or social welfare. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have become essential cultural pillars, even founding principles, for businesses that recognize the impact of awareness in society.

Sustainability and CSR initiatives are valuable projects that companies of all industries can use to better connect with their customers. This also means that they need project managers (PMs) adept at guiding green projects and CSR programs central to the company’s identity and success in the markets of today. Done right,  projects like a zero-waste program or charity drive can endear brands to customers who appreciate climate and social accountability. But if these ideals are neglected or not competently prioritized, companies can experience harsh consequences, making skilled project managers all the more important.

Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind for PMs in charge of mission-critical sustainability and CSR projects.

Focus on the “Why” behind it all

A major determining factor in the success of any project is the reasoning behind it all. This is especially true in sustainability and CSR, which companies now use as defining traits in corporate culture and brand identity. Any company can say it wants to become more socially or environmentally active, but without a solid and uniting “Why” that explains the ideal to employees, stakeholders, leaders and customers alike, the project may not gain the desired traction. Sustainability and social responsibility are not qualities that can be put on; they require honest buy-in and action from all involved.

Project managers need to convey these core values as often and as effectively as they can. Everyone involved in the project should have a clear understanding of the objective – whether that’s to advocate for civil rights, to support better resource conservation, or to encourage volunteering and community outreach from employees and managers. In this case, the ends are as important as the means, which can be difficult for PMs to integrate into their overall approach to the project. Naturally, project managers are focused on productivity and efficiency, but with CSR and sustainability, they need to address the added element of overall purpose.

One way PMs can connect their project collaborators to this purpose is by holding town halls or listening sessions. Having conversations with stakeholders and employees will help to familiarize them with the “Why.” Participation will generate buy-in, and this is particularly needed in carrying out projects that hold great weight for the business.

Know the tools and standards

As popular as sustainability and CSR are in the business world, they are still niche subjects in some respects. Project managers who are overseeing intensive projects like water recycling efforts and green building construction need to know the specific standards to which these sustainable projects will be held. Achieving independent certification means that companies can then promote their credentials to customers and partners, so PMs need to have a grasp on the specifics of what green project management entails.

For instance, Green Project Management, and industry organization, supports the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management that contains methods and metrics that PMs can use to help guide their CSR-related projects. Reporting data is a primary responsibility for many sustainable projects (like those related to carbon emissions) and there are certain benchmarks and modes of reporting that PMs need to be familiar with to ensure their projects adhere to industry standards, like those maintained by the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Green construction is a growing trend within sustainability, and given construction is already a popular specialty for PMs, it’s likely many project managers will encounter plans to build green spaces or energy-efficient buildings. Achieving LEED certification, for example, will require satisfying a number of codes and standards, like those having to do with sustainable building materials used in construction and the effect on the environment around the site.

Plan for the long term

In many cases, the effects of sustainability and CSR projects take time to show in the bottom line. Project managers need to incorporate the long-term perspective into their overall approach in order to set realistic expectations and manage progress over the lifetime of an effort. For instance, while LED lighting fixtures have a higher upfront cost than other options, they use less energy and last longer than those same alternatives, reducing cost over their lifetime.

PMs need to find a balance between overseeing the day-to-day operations of the project, like installations of new efficient or smart equipment, and preserving the long-term objectives of the initiative. It’s important to have detailed phases and plans, and having milestones and targets planned out over the duration of the project will help manage expectations and ensure progress can be made.

Brandeis’ graduate program can help

Green project management is gaining more footing in the professional community, drawing many talented PMs to the world of sustainability and CSR. Project managers can support their specialization pursuits with a foundation of competencies and skills gained from a comprehensive graduate education. PMs interested in obtaining an online master’s degree may want to consider Brandeis University. Contact an admissions officer today to learn more about how our Master of Science in Project and Program Management can help you support your career ambitions. Visit us online today.


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