Unsung Heroes: Corporate Sustainability Officers

Today, the drivers of environmental action go deeper than philanthropic motives, or doing the right thing. For a growing number of companies, "going green" is now a core business strategy.
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I've long believed that the private sector has an important role in addressing critical social and environmental challenges.

Like everyone else, most business leaders want their companies to be good neighbors and respected members of the community -- commitments long reflected in corporate social responsibility policies.

But today, the drivers of environmental action go deeper than philanthropic motives, or doing the right thing. They also go beyond regulatory compliance. For a growing number of companies, "going green" is now a core business strategy. Those companies committed to minimizing their environmental footprints and factoring the value of nature into their business plans are the ones that will lead their industries in earnings growth, productivity, innovation and employee satisfaction in the decades ahead.

At the World Environment Center's (WEC) annual Gold Medal Colloquium last week, I joined a number of business leaders who "get" this point. This year WEC recognized IBM for its commitment to integrating environmental sustainability throughout its business practices. Past honorees include Coca-Cola for its far-sighted efforts to protect the watersheds it depends on for its business and Nestlé, which has embraced the concept of Shared Value -- looking beyond short-term financial gains to create long-term value for both shareholders and society.

What do companies leading the way in environmental sustainability have in common?

  • They almost always have an inspired leader in charge of the company's sustainability agenda. As companies get more serious about their environmental strategies, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) has emerged as a key player in developing win-win solutions that benefit both business and nature. I think some of the boldest and most innovative business leaders today are CSOs. They are changing how business is done.

  • It's not an easy job. He or she must have deep knowledge of the company's core operations, a real commitment to the environment, and strong relationships with NGOs, communities and other allies. A good CSO finds ways for a company to strengthen business outcomes and environmental outcomes at the same time. A great CSO builds a true culture of sustainability across every aspect of the business, embedding environmental thinking into employees' goals, measures and incentives.
    • Of course, a great CSO must work alongside a great CEO committed to building that culture and making sustainability a top priority for the company. They have what sustainability experts Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston call an "eco-advantage mindset" -- they take a long-range view of timeframes and payoffs when evaluating environmental decisions; they look for opportunities for improvement across their entire value chain; and they adopt the "failure is not an option" motto -- establishing tough environmental goals to which they hold themselves accountable. If they fall short of these goals, they are fully transparent to the company's stakeholders and the general public.

  • These sustainability leaders fully integrate nature into their core business strategies, using tools and resources grounded in solid science. They do so because they recognize the value of nature that sustains industries: the oceans that provide seafood; the forests that provide trees for paper products; the healthy soils that grow crops; the rivers that provide fresh water. They understand that investing in the long-term health of these resources will well-position their companies for the future.
  • These sustainability leaders are resolute and don't back down in the face of criticism. Big, global businesses are complex organizations. Perfect outcomes are not in the cards. Even the best performing environmentally-focused companies will have setbacks -- mistakes, accidents or other disappointments. When this happens, critics will pounce. (Not a bad thing -- criticism can lead to good improvements.) But their leaders don't waver from their long-term game plans.
  • Just as successful businesses are making conservation a core part of their business strategy, conservationists should adopt as a core strategy collaborating carefully with businesses to lend expertise and help speed up the adoption of sustainable practices. Collaboration does not mean, however, that companies should expect a free pass from environmentalists. Watchdog NGOs that push companies to do the right thing play an important role in exposing bad practices and using publicity to drive change. Even companies leading the way on sustainability efforts still have a long way to go. There, no doubt, will be occasions when honest attempts between environmentalists and companies to collaborate will prove disappointing.

    But to not work with companies -- whose footprints and influence are vast -- to improve environmental sustainability is to miss an essential opportunity to help them make better decisions, understand the value of nature and create real conservation gains around the world.

    In my view, we are in the midst of a defining moment for the private sector. Great Chief Sustainability Officers, working with strong CEOs and collaborating with smart conservation organizations, have the opportunity to demonstrate that healthy lands and waters are good for nature, people and business.

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