October 03, 2023 •

7 min reading

Implementing sustainability in service organizations: A complex puzzle

Written by


  • Implementing sustainability in service organizations is a complex puzzle, but it’s worth the effort as a key driver of global sustainability outcomes.
  • External reporting of CSR information, internal management of CSR initiatives, and internal governance are key managerial anchors in this vast arena.
  • Organizations and governments must prioritize sustainability and take these key steps today to meet global committments towards reductions in CO2 emissions.


In the wake of the 2015 Paris accord and a global push for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, service organizations are at a crossroads. Countries and industries across the globe, including the EU, the US, Japan, and Korea, have committed to significant reductions in CO2 emissions by 2030. Corporate giants like Microsoft, Moderna, Amazon, Royal Caribbean Cruises, McDonald's, and United Airlines have made bold commitments towards sustainability.

However, these pledges are not just lofty goals; they signify an imminent and transformative change for entire industries and individual businesses. A report from a leading investment bank asserts that companies must profoundly overhaul their business models to be fit for the transition. Services, especially in sectors like tourism, hospitality, financial and commercial banking, and retailers and food, are at the center of this puzzle.

Sustainability challenges for service organizations

Service sectors face the daunting task of doubling the pace of emissions reduction within this decade, accelerating even further in the following years to meet net-zero emissions by 2050. This immense challenge comes with opportunities and hurdles in reducing emissions, embracing sustainability principles, and adopting specific actions like reducing single-use plastic, energy conservation, or adopting circular economy activities.

However, the transition towards system-wide sustainability brings about a level of managerial complexity and uncertainty that most service companies feel ill-prepared to handle.

This article summarizes a research paper that explores this vast landscape, focusing on three anchoring managerial mechanisms: external reporting in sustainability, internal management of sustainability, and internal governance, aiming to understand how leaders can drive innovation and improve the efficiency and impact of sustainability engagements in service organizations.

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1. External reporting in sustainability: CSR information specificities and disclosure

The first anchoring mechanism, external reporting in sustainability, serves as a foundation for embedding sustainability principles in service organizations. By understanding the unique characteristics of corporate social responsibility information, adapting reporting frameworks, leveraging technology, and ensuring reliable external assurance, companies can create a robust and credible reporting system.

The complexity of CSR information

Corporate Social Responsibility reporting has become a critical aspect of modern business, reflecting a company’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility. However, CSR information is often heterogenous, difficult to verify, and hard to quantify. Its credibility appears to be a significant issue.

Voluntary vs. mandatory disclosure

While CSR information is usually disclosed on a voluntary basis, the pros, and cons of mandating such disclosures are widely debated. Mandatory disclosure may lead to a more standardized and transparent reporting framework, but it might also create additional burdens for companies.

The need for assurance

The external assurance market is evolving, playing a crucial role in making audited CSR information reliable. However, more extensive standardization of audit processes and auditors’ expertise is required to achieve this goal. Independent third-party assurance, like auditors, adds credibility to the information, increasing its reliability.

The role of stakeholders

Understanding stakeholders' expectations is crucial. New trends and standards will require companies to adapt quickly to a dynamic environment, developing and acquiring digital tools and internal expertise to report relevant and measurable information.

Standardizing reports

Adapting the reporting framework is imperative for evolving towards a more globalized reporting context, making information comparable across companies. This involves understanding the specificities that make CSR information unique and devising standards that reflect these nuances.

Better digital tools

In an age of digital transformation, service companies must leverage technology to report specific, relevant, and measurable information on a timely basis. Investing in digital tools and internal expertise is no longer optional but a necessity to stay aligned with global standards.


2. Internal sustainability management: The need for transformation

The challenges of internal sustainability management are multifaceted and require a comprehensive approach. They encompass everything from supply chain management to employee training and operational efficiencies.

Aligning objectives with realities

The alignment of sustainability objectives with business strategies is paramount. It ensures that environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals are not isolated endeavors but are integral to the business's overall mission and vision.

Ensuring that sustainability goals translate into operational realities requires rigorous management control systems and implementation processes. Policies, guidelines, budget plans, targets, and KPIs must be clearly outlined, and regular monitoring and feedback mechanisms should be in place.

Embracing technology

Integrating the latest technology in the pursuit of sustainability and innovation helps in transforming traditional processes. Whether it's implementing energy-efficient systems or developing new products and services that are environmentally friendly, technology is at the core of sustainable transformation.

Building a culture of sustainability

An organization’s culture plays a vital role in its success in becoming sustainable. Cultivating a culture that values sustainability involves leadership commitment, employee engagement, and continuous education and training.

Collaborating with stakeholders

Working closely with stakeholders, including suppliers, customers, and regulators, ensures that sustainability efforts are synergistic and aligned with broader societal goals.

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3. Internal governance: structuring for success

The board and executive leadership play a critical role in setting the tone for sustainability within the organization. Their commitment, oversight, and strategic guidance are essential for successful sustainability governance. The Sustainability Board Report is the global benchmark of boards' ESG engagement.

Delegation & accountability

Roles and responsibilities at every level must be clearly defined to ensure accountability. From the board's oversight to middle management's execution, everyone must understand their part in the sustainability journey.

Risk management & reporting

Sustainability must be integrated into the organization's broader risk management framework. Identifying, assessing, and managing sustainability-related risks is vital to the overall success of the initiatives.

Regular reporting to the board and other stakeholders, coupled with periodic reviews, ensures that sustainability efforts are on track and aligned with the organization's goals.

Compliance & ethical considerations

Adherence to legal and ethical considerations in sustainability practices is non-negotiable. Ensuring compliance with relevant laws and regulations, while maintaining high ethical standards, builds trust and credibility.

Service organizations and governments as drivers of innovation

The transition towards a sustainable future is a complex, multifaceted endeavor that requires a comprehensive and coordinated effort. Service organizations are not merely passive players in this journey; they are vital innovation drivers. By embracing sustainability, these organizations can contribute significantly to global efforts to create a more sustainable and responsible world.


Essential next steps for service organizations

The journey toward sustainability is unending, but the direction is clear. Service organizations must take these steps:

Adapt to changing norms: As societal norms and regulations evolve; service organizations must adapt by updating their practices and strategies.

Invest in education: Providing employees with continuous learning opportunities ensures that they understand and are committed to the sustainability goals of the organization.

Form cross-industry partnerships: By partnering with organizations across different sectors, service organizations can share best practices and innovate together.

Encourage community engagement: Working closely with local communities can provide insights into unique local challenges and opportunities for sustainability.


Actions for governments and regulatory bodies

Governments and regulatory bodies play a vital role in shaping a sustainable future. Here’s how they can contribute:

Standardizing practices: Creating Regulations: Developing standardized sustainability regulations ensures that all organizations are working towards the same goals.

Monitoring and enforcement: Regularly monitoring compliance and enforcing regulations ensures that standards are maintained.

Incentivizing sustainable behaviors: Tax Incentives and Grants: Governments can encourage sustainability by providing financial incentives like tax breaks or grants for sustainable practices.

Public recognition: Recognizing and promoting companies that excel in sustainability can create positive peer pressure within the industry.


Embracing the opportunities for all

Sustainability should not be viewed merely as a challenge but as an opportunity for transformation and growth. The following aspects are key:

New markets: Sustainability can open new markets and customer segments that value environmentally responsible products and services.

Product innovation: By focusing on sustainability, organizations can develop innovative products that meet emerging demands.

Cultural shift: Embracing sustainability often leads to a transformation in organizational culture, promoting values such as responsibility, empathy, and long-term thinking.

Operational Efficiency: Sustainable practices often lead to more efficient operations, reducing waste and optimizing resources.


Multifaceted approach

The complexity of the sustainability landscape requires a multifaceted approach. Service organizations stand at a critical junction where their actions can significantly impact the global sustainability landscape. By adopting a comprehensive approach, focusing on collaboration, continuous learning, and embracing the opportunity, they can lead the way to a more sustainable future.

Emphasizing the role of governments and regulatory bodies, aligning organizational culture, recognizing the opportunity for growth, and nurturing innovation are key. These elements intertwine to create a sustainable ecosystem where service organizations not only survive but thrive.

The call to action is clear: service organizations must rise to the challenge, seize the opportunities, and lead with conviction and purpose. The path is demanding but promising, filled with potential for those who dare to innovate and transform.

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Written by
Dr Carlos Martin-Rios
Written by
Dr Carlos Martin-Rios

Associate Professor at EHL

Dr Giovanni-Battista Derchi
Written by
Dr Giovanni-Battista Derchi

Assistant Professor at EHL

Dr Cédric Poretti
Written by
Dr Cédric Poretti

Associate Professor at EHL