How to develop an effective Sustainability Strategy?
Learn from the consulting work we did with our client SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University, including frameworks, materiality and stakeholder engagement.
Table of Content
- Project management
- Process and frameworks
- Materiality assessment
- Strategy, Performance Indicators, Governance and Communication
The SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University is a state-approved university of applied sciences specialized in part-time distance learning, offering bachelor and master programs as well as MBAs and certificates.
As the German quality leader in distance learning, SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University recently launched sustainability-related education programs, such as
- Bachelor in sustainability management
- Sustainability Management (MBA)
- Certificate in CSR and sustainability management
SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University has more than 200 faculty and lecturers plus 130 administrative staff. It has 8,500 students and experienced a doubling in student enrollment over the past 5 years.
End 2020, the SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University contacted teams4purpose to get support on developing their sustainability strategy.
The SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University had three reasons to create its sustainability strategy:
- Be consistent with what they were teaching
- Take active climate action in a highly competitive context
- Respond to growing expectations to live up to their responsibility
Before kicking off the project of creating a sustainability strategy, it was important to set up a project team.
It is key that the creation of a sustainability strategy is seen as an important topic within a company and is managed by a cross-functional, influential and sustainability-savvy team. It’s also crucial to get top leadership support to make sure the topic gets sufficient visibility and resources (financial, people’s time, etc.).
At SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University , a project team was set up consisting of three employees from the faculty and administrative teams. It was complemented by a person from teams4purpose. The project team met regularly (weekly or bi-weekly) throughout the whole project.
BEST PRACTICE: Regular updates were given to the leadership team to get their buy-in, advice and embark them in the co-creation process. This was key to get their growing understanding and support on the topic and its strategic importance for the company.
Process and frameworks
Here are three best practices for a sustainability strategy to be relevant and legitimate:
- Use a guiding framework for corporate responsibility
- Analyze the company’s impacts (on people and planet) along its value chain
- Engage stakeholders in the process
Note: The upcoming CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) – effective from 2024 – will require companies across Europe with more than 250 employees to do mandatory reporting on their sustainability performance including its material (= most relevant) sustainability issues and negative impacts of the business activity across its value chain.
Frameworks and process used for the SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University:
✅ The ISO 26000 framework for corporate responsibility to identify existing as well as potential future sustainability actions.
✅ The methodology of the SDG Compass (developed by the UN Global Compact, Global Reporting Initiative and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) to map the company’s impacts (SDGs) across its value chain.
✅ We did a benchmark to identify best practices in sustainability among universities in Germany.
✅ We ran workshops with key stakeholders – students and alumni, employees and lecturers – to complete the picture.
✅ In parallel, the university calculated its carbon footprint, which provided valuable insights and concrete actions to mitigate its emissions in scopes 1, 2 and 3.
✅ We also made sure our approach was in line with the German Sustainability Codex.
These steps enabled us to come up with a preliminary list of material sustainability issues for the university.
✅ We used the German university-specific CSR framework HOCH-N to classify the identified issues and actions. HOCH-N defines five action areas of sustainability for universities:
- Operations and campus (ecological and social criteria)
- Transfer of sustainability into society
This process lasted about 3 to 4 months.
Once we had a preliminary list of issues and potential actions for sustainability, we had to prioritize them. This was done by performing a materiality assessment in the form of an online survey among key stakeholders. This enabled the university to engage key stakeholders in the process and get their opinion on the SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University’s top sustainability priorities.
- We ran the survey among students, alumni, faculty members and lecturers, employees and other external stakeholders such as suppliers, authorities and corporate partners. We also asked participants to rank the university’s key SDGs.
- We invited the leadership team to rank top issues in terms of their importance and impact on the business and the sector.
The result was a materiality matrix which enabled us to identify key focus areas (highlighted in the top right part of the matrix with important issues for both the university and its stakeholders):
The materiality assessment lasted approximately 2 months.
Once we had sustainability priority areas, we had to develop the strategy. Teams4purpose suggested to continue engaging stakeholders in this process and include company staff members and faculty members and lecturers in order to combine a top-down with a bottom-up approach. This would ensure continuous engagement of key staff from the start: If they co-create the roadmap, they will be more willing to participate in its execution.
BEST PRACTICE: The SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University accepted to take up this challenge and embarked on a bottom-up co-creation process of its sustainability strategy. Five working groups (based on the five key sustainability action areas according to HOCH-N – teaching, research, campus, governance and transfer into society) were created. The working groups were briefed to come up with objectives, action plans and responsibilities for each action area and were supported by the sustainability project team.
The working groups and leadership team also co-developed a new guiding vision for the years ahead for the SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University : “We live and teach sustainability and are committed to society and the environment”.
Outcome – SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University’s Key Sustainability Pillars 2022-2023
Here are some highlights of SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University ’s sustainability strategy:
- The integration of sustainability into all teaching programs (beyond sustainability-specific programs).
- Become a family-friendly institution, enabling parents to study and to work at the same time. The same goes for employees, offering family-friendly working options.
- The carbon assessment enabled the university to set specific actions to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the bulk of emissions being in scope 3. Some of these actions include reducing the use of paper and sustainable mobility.
The strategy co-creation process lasted approximately 3 months and the results were presented to the leadership for amendment and approval.
Teams4purpose helped the project team to complete its sustainability action areas and KPIs, taking internal data as well as KPI proposals from the GRI and SASB. The project team also completed objectives and baselines.
The resulting Sustainability Dashboard includes all sustainability action areas for 2022/23: the company is now using this dashboard to follow up the implementation of its strategy. Here is an example of the dashboard for Sustainable Facility Management:
In parallel to the strategy development, the project team worked with the marketing team to co-create an external communication plan, including a dedicated website to publish its sustainability commitments. The team also worked on an internal communication plan to keep the staff engaged and up to date on its sustainability agenda.
The sustainability strategy included appointing a CSR-Manager, a CSR support team and functional sustainability Leads for each action area. Furthermore, regular (at least bi-annual) reviews were foreseen with the company’s leadership team. External advisory has been maintained during implementation in form of support by teams4purpose.
The strategy was kicked off in January 2022 in all five action areas and the university recently launched its sustainability website: SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University ’s Sustainability Strategy. It includes a didactical FAQ section on net zero.
As part of its social mission and in light of the current refugee crisis, the university has granted free access to its Refugee assistance course.
In June 2022, the SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University was awarded the special award “Digital Education – Sustainably into the Future” by the German Federal Association of Distance-Learning Providers (Bundesverband der Fernstudienanbieter e.V.) for its sustainability ambition and comprehensive strategy. Find out more
As part of its strategy to transfer sustainability among staff, partners and society at large, it will host a sustainability congress in spring 2023.
The university has adopted its first on-site beehive, as part of the internal communication and engagement plan.
The SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University has also been pioneering the topic of sustainability within the SRH Holding, setting new ambitions for the Group and partner companies.
Its first sustainability report is expected mid 2024.
About SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University
SRH Distance Learning University is part of the SRH foundation, a major German provider of health and education services. The foundation comprises more than 150 medical institutions, 9 universities and 24 schools, serving 1.2 million patients per year as well as 51,000 educational clients.
The state-recognised SRH Fernhochschule – The Distance Learning University specialises in online study options that students can pursue while in employment. As the German quality leader in distance learning, the university has developed a study model that offers maximum flexibility to students and guarantees excellent service, including complimentary foreign language training and career services. All online studies revolve around the innovative electronic campus. It enables students to follow their courses wherever and whenever they prefer, allowing students to care of work, professional training, family matters, or athletic activities in conjunction with their academic studies. The university has been voted Germany’s most popular distance-learning university in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Interested in co-creating your sustainability strategy?
Teams4purpose has been helping companies to co-create their sustainability strategies since 2017.
Our mission is to help you take action for sustainability and positive impact in your job and business.
What we do
- We help you co-create your sustainability strategy and roadmap.
- We provide sustainability advisory during CSR implementation.
- We offer training on Business Sustainability and CSR
- We support you in creating awareness and engagement among stakeholders via workshops and serious games. We are proud facilitators of the Climate Fresk and the Biodiversity Collage
✅ Download our free guide with 5 key steps to activate positive impact from within your organization.