From Sustainability Assessment to Sustainability Transformation

The fundamental purpose of sustainability assessment is to improve sustainability. However, assessment alone does not by itself lead to change. There are multiple factors that influence the success of any initiative in terms of its ability to create change. Research suggests that sustainability assessment initiatives are often challenged by participants on the basis of their fairness and validity. However, the success of a sustainability initiative in driving sustainability transformation beyond meeting minimum standards is reliant on participants fully embracing it.

There has been a lot of research on the different factors that influence the work performance of employees. Multiple parallels can be seen between a sustainability initiative and organisational employment. For example, employees have contractual obligations that require them to do work for the organisation. Many sustainability initiatives and assurance schemes also place compulsory/contractual obligations on participants. It is also commonly accepted that businesses and other organisations want their employees to go beyond simply achieving a bare minimum standard in terms of their work performance. Successful organisations tend to go far beyond achieving a minimum level of performance. The same expectation is equally relevant to a sustainability initiative, i.e. that it is desirable for the participants to go beyond achieving the minimum standard required of them and instead achieve a higher level of sustainability performance.

There are other shared characteristics between contractual employment and a sustainability initiative with compulsory requirements as well, for example:

  • They both involve the giving up of some freedom

  • They both measure success in terms of performance

  • They both involve assessment and review processes

  • They both impose external obligations on the employee/participant

  • They both include obligations to stakeholders/customers

  • They both impart benefits and burdens on the employee/participant.

  • And, they both have a governance structure

The same factors that influence an employee’s work performance are therefore, also likely to influence a sustainability initiative participant’s performance. Some of these factors (among others) are; fairness, trust, organisational commitment, and perceived organisational support. These are sometimes called social exchange mediators. People are satisfied when they feel they are receiving fair returns for their expenditures. A simple way to think about how a person perceives the value of being involved in a sustainability assessment initiative is:

Value of participation = Rewards - Costs

If the person trusts the initiative, is committed to their organisation, feels that they are being supported, and considers their requirements under the initiative fair, they are more likely to feel that the initiative has higher rewards and lower costs for them when compared to an alternative. In turn, they will then be more motivated to take part and will be more likely to achieve better outcomes.

Moving from sustainability assessment to sustainability transformation requires that the participants are committed and motivated to make improvements. Measurement alone will not achieve this. What is required is close attention to social exchange mediators such as fairness and trust which effect the perceived value of being involved with a sustainability initiative, and therefore impact upon motivation and commitment.


Jay Whitehead