Chief Sustainability Officer
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Mathias Lelievre, CEO of ENGIE Impact, discusses the important role the Chief Sustainability Officer has in making businesses greener

Climate Week 2019 – the largest global event on climate action – proved that sustainability has ascended to the top of the agenda of the world’s biggest companies. More than half of midsized business in Britain (57.5%) say that sustainability is ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ influential in their decision making and Edelman’s 2019 Trust barometer showed that 76% of the general population agreed that business leaders should take a lead on issues such as sustainability and climate change.

Another sign of the increasing weight associated with sustainability is the growth of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), charged with provided dedicated leadership in business matters relating to sustainability. Companies such as P&G, Nike and H&M have all led the charge on appointing CSOs to drive their respective sustainability initiatives and, as more businesses seek to get to grips with the demands of an effective strategy, the number of companies creating the role and giving them genuine power to implement change is likely to increase significantly.

The arrival of the CSO demonstrates its importance but, as the scope of what corporate sustainability encompasses continues to expand, one role dedicated to sustainability is simply not enough. Which is why although the presence of this central C-Level role is increasing, the responsibility of driving sustainability is becoming ever more distributed.

Embedded in the culture

A recent study found that nearly three-quarters of office workers (73%) want their workplace to improve their company’s sustainability policies and nearly a quarter (24%) would turn down a job over sustainability. It is clear that environmentally friendly practices are becoming increasingly important for employees and customers alike, and if companies want to hire the right talent and keep up with customer demand, then implementing a sustainable mindset in all parts of the organisation in a must.

Encouraging a shift in mindset doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. The first step is to communicate your ambitions to the organisation and explain why they are important. The CSO then has the responsibility to break down their strategy and goals by department and communicate how each department will make a difference to the overall sustainability goal. Similarly, celebrate sustainability achievements and reward employees for committing to your strategy. Let those employees tell your story and be the champions of it.

By articulating a convincing business case for your sustainability efforts and rewarding departments for aligning with them, employees can more easily align their day-to-day activities with a wider company sustainability commitment.

Holistic leadership approach

Sustainability activities cannot be, and should not be, undertaken in isolation. They need to be embedded as part of the wider company culture to ensure sustainability goals are met – effective programs require different departments pulling in the same direction, supported by new technology solutions and, where necessary, a change in attitude by staff; that starts with the entire leadership team. Shifting a mindset within an organisation is no easy task, but the CSO has a responsibility to align departments and ensure that they all collaborate and understand the importance of sustainability and how the organisation is approaching the topic.

On innovative approach to this concept comes from sustainability leader Ikea. Ikea has made each of its country leaders Chief Sustainability Officers themselves. The signal this gave to the organisation on the importance of sustainability in each region was massive, creating an accelerated focus and success on sustainability.

The CSO must partner with every role in the C-suite to embed sustainability into the culture and up and down the value chain. For many companies, overhauling their sustainability programme is the only way to really make an impact and the CSO must drive this change.

Linking to business objectives

The Bank of England’s Governor, Mark Carney, recently stated that businesses that fail to adapt to climate change will go bust, but those that put ‘green’ at the centre of their strategy will profit significantly. That sentiment, which is shared by others, shows that sustainability should be at the forefront of one’s business strategy.

Therefore, the impact of the CSO is bigger and broader than just implementing sustainability measures. By introducing a long-term strategy, the CSO can make a wider impact on the business as a whole. For example, the brand and reputation of the organisation can improve as a result of progressive and innovative sustainability initiatives. Companies are more likely to attract and retain talent if they are proactively shouting about their efforts to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. In HSBC’s Made for the Future report, 24% of businesses said sustainability is crucial for recruitment and retention. It is clear that the work that companies put in now will ensure their growth in the future.

By working with other C-suite colleagues on how sustainability helps promote their respective agendas, sustainability will be a long-term priority through all business and economic cycles.

CSOs can’t carry the burden themselves – all senior executives must buy in, because 80% of projects fail without executive support. Executive cooperation in sustainability initiatives has come a long way in recent years. The advancement in sustainability technology has resulted in progressive companies savings millions, making such activities a competitive necessity, helping to gain recognition among stakeholders, investors and customers.

Companies have a responsibility to implement sustainability initiatives and strategies and pressure to do so is increasing from all sides, from employees and investors, to consumers. They must remember, however, that it’s not a one-person job. It’s not just up to the CSO to promote sustainability throughout an organisation. To champion ‘good growth’, and not just ‘growth’, sustainability should be a part of everyone’s role.


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