Last week, three business leaders sat on a panel to discuss corporate climate commitments at the 2016 BSR conference. But they kept coming back to a broader topic: the rise of the sustainability professional.
Gone are the days when sustainability executives serve as mere figureheads for uninspired corporate philanthropy. Corporate responsibility leaders are no longer typecast as dreamers or idealists whose values have no place in a business setting. As consumers continue to demand more sustainable products, today's sustainability professionals are often the go-to for driving business growth.
This shift is apparent for all of us in the space. And it may be just what we need to drive corporate commitments that can move the needle on global challenges like climate change and resource scarcity.
Noel Morrin, executive vice president of sustainability for Finnish pulp and paper company Stora Enso Oyj, shared his personal journey as a sustainability professional: "I’ve worked in sustainability for 29 years. And for 27.5 of those, I said please. Now I don’t say please," he said with a laugh. "I sit there with the CFO and the divisional directors and everybody else, and I have equal say."
Some companies are pushing things a step further, Peter Harris, sustainability director for UPS Europe, pointed out. "In terms of integrating sustainability not just with investment but also within business, one of the key things is: Don’t have a sustainability department," said Harris, who serves as the lone sustainability representative for UPS in Europe. "I think when you have a situation where there are an army of sustainability people, then the inevitable result is the creation of a bucket where it is considered that sustainability gets done."
This new era for sustainability professionals surely presents opportunity to drive real change. But Harris cautioned his peers not to get too carried away, lest they be pushed back into the silo from whence they came.
"With this increased attention that I agree our community is getting comes some responsibility," Harris insisted. "Innovation on its own is not enough. It has to be an innovation that works.This measured approach often requires patience. Although calls for greater sustainability among the world's largest companies are growing, this is still a relatively new movement. And acknowledging that companies are in different phases of this journey, rather than expecting them to have the answers right away, will prove crucial in bringing all actors to the table, said Deborah Winshel, global head of impact investing for BlackRock.
"We have to be able to implement this stuff. We must be mindful of the responsibility to make sure that the ideas we’re generating can be made real. Otherwise the risk is that we go through a fashionable rise in attention span and then we find ourselves in another valley of death."
With over $5 trillion in assets under management, BlackRock is the largest investment management company in the world, publicly-traded or otherwise. But until a year or two ago, a significant proportion of BlackRock's clients barely had sustainability on their radar, let alone undertaking actionable steps to tackle challenges like climate change, Winshel said. Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find an institutional investor in the company's portfolio that isn't asking about these topics.
Picking up on these market trends, BlackRock came together with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to form the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, for which Winshel serves on the board. The task force, which aims to drive consistent global reporting around climate risk, is still in the very early stages. But the fact that it even exists speaks volumes, Winshel insisted.
"The data is honestly mediocre at best," she conceded. "It’s not great data yet. But I think the fact that BlackRock, representing so many clients, cares about this information -- which means our clients, our investors care about that information -- hopefully creates a virtuous cycle: Companies appreciate that investors care, and so there’s a greater drive to produce reports that don’t just have butterflies and rainbows on them but are really trying to help us understand the challenges they face and the solutions they’re working through -- which we appreciate are not straightforward -- to try to move us all forward in this transitional economy."
Harris agreed that the corporate shift toward sustainability, while clear and visible, is also incremental. For UPS, the clients most likely to ask about sustainable offerings are larger customers operating on the premium end of their markets. But that trend is beginning to trickle down.
"The end result of that is — hopefully, and it aligns with what we’re seeing — a race to the top. Anything that allows me to connect what I’m trying to do to conventional business metrics is a win-win. And i think that’s the way it’s going ... If it becomes a competition between UPS and the other members in the logistics industry to be more sustainable, that would be huge."
Morrin agreed, saying business leaders must stop waiting for consumers to demand sustainable products and start leading their industries now -- or else risk being left behind later.
"It’s about differentiation," he explained. "I don’t expect consumers to pay more. I don’t expect to pay more. What I want is a more sustainable product at a better price. And if you build in the efficiency and you have the right sort of investors behind you, you do it. That’s the reality of where we are."So, what do you think as a sustainability professional? Are higher-ups in your company more likely to listen to you, or do you feel as siloed as ever? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section.
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