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Sustainability in Project Management

19 Nov 2021
Sustainability in Project Management

Projects are instrumental for achieving sustainable solutions. In 2015, the United Nations set forward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations to shape a global agenda for all, including the project management profession.

sustainable project management

What is Sustainability?

Sustainable Project Management is the planning, monitoring and controlling of project delivery and support processes, with consideration of the environmental, economical and social aspects of the life-cycle of the project’s resources, processes, deliverables and effects, aimed at realizing benefits for stakeholders, and performed in a transparent, fair and ethical way that includes proactive stakeholder participation. (Gilbert Silvius, 2015, Considering Sustainability in Project Management Processes).

A good way of making sure the project stays sustainable is to have that goal in mind from the beginning of the project. Once it is put into the vision of the project, it cannot be forgotten about. Having sustainability be relevant in all project areas will ensure that the environmental damage is minimised.

As project managers direct the consumption of project resources, they should be looking at all factors, both inside and out of the organisation, over the entire life cycle of a project. That is why it’s important that they use a sustainable life cycle mentality, from a project’s beginning to its end. 

The reason for this is, as we already mentioned, that sustainability involves balancing four different areas. Those include:

  • environment, such as climate change
  • economy, such as affordability
  • society, such as community and 
  • administration, such as health and safety

Considering all of them together is key to building truly sustainable projects. Strategic Project & Programme Management Diploma can help you to implement strategic sustainability initiatives. This course bridges the gap between strategy and implementation.

Environmental sustainability means using sustainable resources, preventing pollution and reducing effects on climate change. This requires evaluating equipment, resources used for a project, industry standards, and purchasing practices. Fairtrade is one of the best options for making sure you stay sustainable as it is an arrangement designed to help producers in growing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships.

This ties into economic sustainability by looking beyond the return of investment (ROI) and ensuring the project fits into the organisation’s overall strategy by analysing how much it contributes and how viable it is long-term.  

Other than environmental and economic areas of an organisation, the less talked about, but equally as important, are social and administrative areas. Ensuring the organisation is socially sustainable means evaluating the sustainability of its culture, structure and human resource skills and practices. The organisation needs to make sure it provides good working conditions and has good health and safety measurements.

This part is often associated with the human resources sector hence why they are often regarded as the agent of sustainability in any given organisation. They ensure that there is no discrimination against vulnerable groups and that civil and fundamental rights are respected. They are also in charge of employee training and skills development and general community involvement – both significant social areas.

How can project managers contribute to sustainability?

Because projects are temporary, many may be confused about how they can be sustainable if sustainability plays the long game. But, projects help organisations realise long-term investment objectives. Projects and project management take place in an environment that is broader than that of the project itself. 

Seeing as all projects are part of an organisation’s strategy, there are factors influencing its success, both internal and external. Those factors are either helping it succeed or making it difficult for a project to have a positive outcome. Understanding them can help with planning a project and making sure it stays “green”. In much the same way a project manager must balance cost, schedule, and scope, some trade-offs must also be made between the economic, social, and environmental factors surrounding a project.

Project managers usually only focus on getting from an idea to an implemented project, disregarding the long-term consequences of manufacturing and disposal. It is necessary for them to start taking responsibility for the project’s results as its impact does not go away once the project is done. 

The project management profession at large should promote the Sustainable Development Goals by developing objectives, plans and setting them into practice in a given context. A global association like IPMA can provide the profession with its good practices (e.g. standards) and recognise the achievement of sustainability in projects (e.g. through achievement awards).

Achieving Sustainability

Achieving sustainability requires an active role of all people involved in the project, programmes, and portfolios. From Astana, the members of IPMA issue a global call to action to actively support the achievement of sustainability through projects by increasing the awareness and adoption of sustainable competences.

IPMA President Reinhard Wagner confirmed IPMA’s stance saying:

“Listening to the daily news makes me feel that we really need to change something. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN lead the way and are an urgent call for all people engaged in the field of project management. We are the change! We can make a difference in the way we manage projects.’’

Projects are a means to make change happen, deliver new products and services, and thus shape our society. Projects and project management help our society to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability shouldn’t just be an afterthought but should be one of the project’s goals.

Thus, project management needs to consider sustainability as one, if not the most important success factor.