Network for Business Sustainability Shares Insights Into Decision-Making in Sustainability

Corporate social responsibility has quickly evolved over the years, from changing light bulbs to strategically embedding sustainability into business operations. CSR has not been part of the boardroom conversation for very long – at least not in Canada – and so progress made among a growing number of companies is encouraging. That being said, business and society at large face numerous hurdles as we collectively attempt to change behaviour and drive a systemic shift toward a sustainable future. Making choices that drive sustainability at home or in the workplace is key, yet collectively we face a dilemma: how can our decision-making be influenced to make the right choice when it comes to affecting less harm on our environment?

Tackling the question is The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), a Canadian not-for-profit organization representing a global network of researchers and professionals. Through a systemic review on the subject of decision-making in sustainability, NBS produced a helpful report that provides insights into the decision-making process and how to help drive sustainable choices. Making Sustainable Choices: A Guide for Managers is a free resource. The following are key learnings from the report.

What about Decision-Making?

People tend to make decisions based on new ideas, with no pre-existing concepts. We use analysis to construct thoughtful decisions, which can be categorized into two types: routine and complex.

While we all start with a “blank slate” when making decisions, there are biases that hinder our capacity to make sustainable choices, as both organizations and individuals. Understanding these biases and how to overcome them can help business tackle some of the challenges currently faced in changing behavioural patterns in office, operations and through the supply chain.

What are the biases?

Biases and errors can get in the way of good decision-making. We tend to use these biases to help us make decisions quickly and if possible effortlessly. Quick and effortless doesn’t always lead to the best choice.

The report lists decision-making biases as follows:

1) Loss avoidance: gains and losses relative to present state. We don’t like to give up things we already have.

2) Short cuts: We focus on information that’s familiar, recent or easy to interpret – even if it’s not very relevant.

3) Intuition: Over-rely on our gut feeling and intuition when distracted or faced with new situations.

4) “Wants” vs. “shoulds”: we tend to let “wants” trump “shoulds” – particularly when tired or distracted. [1]

The research revealed techniques to counter biases. But in order to understand what techniques to employ, you must first understand whether the decision is “complex” or “routine”?

Breaking-down our understanding of decision-making

There are essentially two types of decision-making processes: routine and complex. Routine decisions are quick and don’t typically take much thought. For example, turning off the tap when brushing teeth, or shutting down the computer at the end of each day. Complex decisions are not as frequent as routine, and require us to analyze information (technical or otherwise) to arrive at a critical choice. The report cites examples such as: “deciding where to site a new facility or investing in climate adaptation initiatives.”[2]

Intervention: employing active and passive techniques

Now that we understand the types of decisions we face, our inherent biases and how those affect us, we can move to action. Intervention techniques are key in driving individuals and organizations to make sustainability-driven choices. The report details two Active Techniques for “complex” decision-making: Structured Decision Making (SDM) and Multi Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA). For “routine” decision-making there are several Passive Techniques: Defaults, Feedback, Commitment and Goal Setting. While the techniques are not new, knowing how to effectively implement them is key. Many times we use Passive Techniques for complex decision-making only to lead to disappointing results.

This research is timely, relevant and a free resource. A key tool for organizations in Canada and around the world is now available, and it is worth having a closer look.

To download Making Sustainable Choices: A Guide for Managers, click HERE.

Article by Meirav Even Har of Justmeans, appearing courtesy 3BL Media.


[1] NBS: Making Sustainable Choices: A Guide for Managers, Executive Report (pg 9).

[2] NBS: Making Sustainable Choices: A Guide for Managers, Executive Report (pg 10).

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