Sustainability within corporate America has become mainstream. Once relegated to the basement office as far as possible from the C-suite just a decade ago, companies from Nike to Ford Motor to yes, Walmart, are taking sustainability seriously. Most companies do not have strategies in place to address climate change and other social, governance and environmental challenges, but change, slowly, is occurring. Companies feel enough pressure from outside stakeholder groups. But what about from the inside?
To that end, the Weinreb Group, VOX Global and Berkeley’s Net Impact chapter together issued a report this week, Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability Inside Corporate America. The report, based on interviews of thirty-two sustainability executives and managers working primarily at Fortune 100 companies, is an effort to understand the skills, business drivers and collaboration strategies necessary in order to sell, implement execute sustainability and corporate responsibility strategies within companies. The lessons are transferable to just about any practitioner, from the solo consulting shop to a chief executive officer.
“By all means move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.” – Line from The Devil Wears Prada, 2006.
Speaking of a glacial pace, the reasons why sustainability is not progressing at the rate at which advocates would like to see are complicated. They can, however, be summed up at a higher level. The three key factors, according to this report, are subject matter expertise, the ability to quantify the value of an initiative, and most importantly, interpersonal skills.
The fact that this report’s respondents insisted that communication is most important should not be a surprise. Despite this world of mass emails, LinkedIn and Facebook, interpersonal skills are even more important because quite frankly, more people today lack them. The report explains that business acumen and the ability to communicate the business case for sustainability in a language that resonates throughout all levels of an organization was critical to achieve such objectives. Furthermore, “sustainability” is a word that is a catch-all for a variety of initiatives. And as far as expertise goes, the expert today is a dinosaur tomorrow. An understanding of what is “sustainable,” from energy to raw materials to community work, evolves – and one size does not fit all companies. All respondents said interpersonal skills were of the highest importance to their current success.
Next, quantification is also key to a successful sustainability officer. Whether one works within a public company, which by law (not ethics) in the U.S. is first accountable to shareholders, or within a billion-dollar company with one or two owners, numbers are what drive American business culture. The purchase of an electric vehicle fleet for the sake of having a clean green fleet is not a strong enough case – but reduced fuel costs seal the deal. If the end results are quantifiable productivity, reduced costs or enhanced brand value, then buy-in from above can occur. Over 80 percent of the survey’s respondents said quantifying value was very applicable to their jobs.
Finally, subject matter expertise rounded up the skills sets needed in order to thrive in a sustainability-focused position. While expertise has value, the danger is falling into the jargon of sustainability, which is often a turn-off. While corporate America is guilty of diving into such cliches as “think outside the box,” “bandwidth,” “leverage” and “best practices,” this report’s findings reveal that the best practice is to avoid the word “sustainability” at much as possible. With sustainability leaders often the “new kid” within a company’s C-suite, the task at hand is not giving the WHAT about business, but the HOW in a language understood by all. In sum, no matter how knowledgeable one may be, collaboration leads to greater influence – not the deepest knowledge about greenhouse gas emissions or stakeholder engagement. This report’s respondents at a rate of 78 percent said they assumed expertise was most important when they took their current position – as time went by that rate fell to 66 percent.
The full report is available for review here.
Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.