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Seeking to Achieve Sustainability Goals in Your Company? Address These Seven Barriers

Reprinted with permission from Buro Happold. A version of this article appears on Green Building & Design magazine’s website. (January 10, 2023)

With a drive towards being better stewards of land and nature, and having less adverse effects on the environment, companies everywhere are implementing ambitious sustainability goals. But the road to achieving them can be difficult, and roadblocks remain.

To provide some insight into addressing the issues along the way, WIA Today is sharing this list of seven barriers that are holding companies back from achieving their sustainability goals, as detailed by Mike Stopka, an industry-leading expert in ESG consulting and principal in Buro Happold’s Chicago office.

Closing the Intention to Achievement Gap

Based on experience working with 50-plus companies over the last 15 years, many of them Fortune 500, a few lessons have emerged to can help organizations succeed. Most importantly, the gap between intending to achieve goals and actually doing so often arises because big companies fail to take the requisite step of identifying the barriers in their way.

Barriers vary widely from technology limitations to lack of sustainability project experience on the team to ineffective oversight. For example, a company wants to be zero waste, but isn’t getting it done. Instead of identifying the root cause, which might be a lack of communication, the wrong physical infrastructure, or overburdened staff that don’t have the headspace to think about zero waste, they jump straight to ordering new bins, creating signs, or calling new waste haulers, usually in a well-meaning, but non-strategic, shotgun approach.

If barriers aren’t identified it’s difficult to make progress on sustainability goals and a vicious cycle results: lack of progress > leadership/team frustration > increased difficulty securing resources > lack of progress.

The cycle of poor progress on ESG goals. Image: Buro Happold, reprinted with permission.

The Barriers to Achieving Organizational Sustainability Goals

Experience reveals seven organization-wide barriers, or root causes, that consistently block company attainment of environmental and social sustainability goals. First, they often lack accountability structures and sustainability experience in their ranks, and most managers don’t even know what their current sustainability performance is. On top of that, they don’t know what sustainability success looks like, or how it ties to company purpose. On top of that, the companies often find their hands are tied: They’re unable to deviate from business as usual, and so they can’t transition to a less certain but more sustainable path forward. Many can’t translate strategy into tactical actions, and very few are able to communicate the business value of sustainability.

The following list was distilled from working with many companies over time to identify trends and seven common barriers that show up repeatedly. This can be applied at a company-wide scale (the whole sustainability program) or at the initiative scale (waste reduction, transportation, etc.). Each barrier is listed followed by the telltale signs of its existence.

1). Lack of accountability structure

  • No single leader can speak to sustainability performance with confidence.

  • Sustainability responsibilities are not owned by anyone and usually executed by volunteers, if at all.

  • No documented policy or approach to sustainability governance, responsibility, or management.

  • The achievement of company sustainability goals is not in senior leaders' individual KPIs.

2). Lack of clarity of what sustainability success looks like and tie to company purpose

  • No definitive list of what sustainability topics are material to the organization exists.

  • No quantitative sustainability targets that define success for sustainability exist.

  • Metrics for sustainability are not a part of evaluations of overall organizational performance.

3). Lack of understanding of current sustainability performance

  • An organization-wide sustainability assessment has not been or is not periodically completed.

  • Lack of organization-wide awareness of current sustainability-related initiatives and needs.

  • Sustainability performance data is collected in siloes without rigor or clear next steps.

  • Lack of awareness about where the organization is on the sustainability adoption journey (pioneer, early adopter, majority, laggard).

4). Lack of sustainability experience and education

  • There is not a “Sustainability 101” or orientation, specific to the company, for staff and leadership.

  • Key leaders and team members do not have a base level of sustainability education, leading to bias, flawed interpretations, and partially informed decisions.

  • Company culture is suspicious of sustainability as a default, voicing misnomers:“sustainability is always more expensive”, “we are too big to change”, or “what we do does not make a difference”.

5). Inability to deviate from business as usual (to a less certain, but more sustainable path)

  • Internal change management support resources do not exist.

  • Inability to commit to sustainability initiatives, stemming from uncertainty and fear that the “sustainable” path might hinder other business objectives.

  • Resistance due to worry that additional sustainability duties for employees will require added resources, or compensation.

6). Inability to translate strategy into tactical action

  • Organization had initial momentum, but achieving goals and progress is not occurring.

  • Sustainability program is unrealistically broad, compared to size of staff managing and executing.

  • A sustainability execution plan with specific initiatives, roles and deadlines does not exist.

  • Internal sustainability team lacks implementation interest, experience, or skillsets.

7). Inability to communicate the business value of sustainability

  • Sustainable solutions are not framed as tools to achieve core business objectives (revenue, talent, risk reduction, etc.). Their sole reason for being is achievingsustainability goals.

  • Sustainability messaging not embedded throughout organizational. communications, and is in stand-alone communications, if anywhere at all.


Buro Happold is an international, integrated consultancy of engineers, consultants, and advisers with a presence in 31 locations worldwide, over 70 partners and 2,200 employees. For over 45 years the company has built a world-class reputation for delivering creative, value-led solutions for an ever-challenging world. Visit for more information.


Mike Stopka is a principal at Buro Happold’s Chicago office leading ESG and sustainability consulting. Stopka leads the group’s strategic sustainability consulting to help companies around the world close the gap between intention (goals) and achievement (impact). He has worked with over 50 companies in the last 15 years, specializing in creating sustainability/ESG programs, GHG reduction (Scope 3 supply chain), stakeholder engagement and change management, teaching, and board advising.

Additional contributors to this article were Kirsten Melling, Isabelle Kavanaugh, and Isaac Smith, all of Buro Happold.


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