Sustainable Innovation


6 Myths about managing sustainability

green steering wheel

What do sustainability managers do?

It’s a question I’m often asked. Back in 2009, before I worked in this field, I started to interview sustainability managers from across Europe trying to come up with an answer. I wanted to understand their work, their top skills, how they stayed eager and determined, and whether ‘managing sustainability’ was going to be a short-lived business trend or here to stay. I was reflecting if this ‘métier’ would be something for me. I started to write blog articles and compiled them in a book ‘Your customers want your products to be green’. Since the start of that journey, I have realized there are a few misconceptions about sustainability managers. Hereby, my top six:

Myth #1  Sustainability managers must have studied ecology.

It is true that Mother Nature is close to the heart of most employees that drive sustainability in their company. Some studied ecology or environmental engineering. However, many sustainability managers landed in their jobs from a broad educational and professional backgrounds. Just to name a few: economics, medicine, marketing, engineering and finance. What does this say? Companies want experienced people in senior roles hence they tend to promote people from within their organisation with relevant expertise in one of the known domains. Junior positions are open for people directly from university who studied sustainability or corporate social responsibility as a main topic. The great consequence of the diverse backgrounds is that the mix of past experiences helps to build bridges with other functions.

Myth #2  For sustainability you don’t need to understand the business.

Wrong. You won’t be able to steer a company towards a better societal impact if you do not know how the company is being run, how it develops, produces, markets and sells its products and services. You see companies setting goals both on profit and social progress, but both effects are created by means of their main activities: business. You have to understand how environmental and social impact can be created through the core business, and how they are related to business opportunities and growth. It also helps if you can use sustainability to support marketing and sales.

Myth #3  Sustainability managers use a wand to change the organization.

Not true at all! Sure, some peope may be inspired as by a flash of lighting, after seeing a movie, reading a book or article. Some sustainbility managers are gifted storytellers who dazzle their audiences. Usually though, managers who are tasked with steering higher sustainability standards must first equip themselves with rock solid science-based metrics then work hard to drive change. They have to define, roadtest and baseline well-defined KPIs and dashboards. They also must coordinate structured dialogues and reporting processes to monitor and manage change. Magic does happen. Many people are inspired, willing to make the extra mile. It however rarely involves wands.

Myth #4  They are rising stars

Social entrepreneurs and sustainability leaders are highly aspirational. They want to change the world through business. They themselves, however, are not always the ones delivering that message on stage. For example, people may see the CEOs of companies like Philips, Unilever and DSM talking about societal impact and business ― and they want to become a star, just like the CEOs. What many people do not realize is that sustainability folks often operate behind the scenes, influencing and changing the organization in a stealthy way through coaching, by convening internal intervention groups, shaping key notes, and advising on internal changes. Although the sustainability team is rarely on stage, there is a fair chance the change has been initiated, followed-up and followed-through by them so that the leadership, sales teams and other ‘stars’ can go out and tell that story.

Myth #5 The best approach is top-down.

‘Without ambitious targets from the top, nobody will move’. This may be true and helpful in high power-distance company cultures. However, in many companies a sole top-down approach would be counterproductive. It should at least be accompanied by or even driven by a bottom-up approach. Many companies install internal networks with ambassadors and champions to co-create and roll-out the sustainability strategy, engaging people from accross hierarchies and functions. It is very important to repack, reframe and repeat the ambitions as well as share best practices on how to approach dilemma’s, how to scale up, and reward those who do a good job. It is important to set the direction from the top, globally, but translation has to be done locally.

Myth #6. Sustainability management won’t be necessary in 10 years.

Sustainability will, sooner or later, become part of most business functions. As companies start to articulate their societal ‘purpose’ or ‘missions’ alongside business objectives, the yardsticks and interventions will be embedded in a range of functions like strategy, finance, innovation, marketing, sales and sourcing. Sustainability will help to  provide a compass for doing the right thing while doing business. It is however unlikely that the sustainability discipline will disappear completely within the next few years. Like Safety Health and Environment (SHE), quality management, supply chain management, the métier is likely to further develop and here to stay. Perhaps we will call it something else and maybe there will be multiple spin-off functions — but a central strategic, antenna, and supporting role is likely here to stay. I think we can look forward to a future of ‘Corporate Climate Warriors’ and ‘Chief Happiness Officers’ who will help take business to a new level.

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Sustainability will be part of all business disciplines

Sustainability knowledge and tactics will be diffused accross organizations. It will be embedded in all functional areas. Which is a great thing.

All disciplines will be affected. Employees will need to be involved and trained in new areas that are logical extentions of their current activities, but with a sustainability focus:

    • Marketeers will be inspired by the new market dynamics related to environmental and social issues. All marketeers will learn about what works and what won’t in Green Marketing.
    • Innovators will be challenged to develop new products that create user benefits ánd create a positive social change, with reduced ecological impact
    • Sales reps will be trained to identify customer sustainability expectations and convince them of the advantages of new business models.
    • Purchasing will intensify at one hand the sustainable supplier criteria and audits, and at the other hand the cooperation with suppliers to search for sustainable sourcing solutions.
    • Controllers will be asked to track progress against social and environmental parameters in addition to the traditional financial indicators.
    • Human Resources have already discovered the power of Sustainability as a means to attract and retain employees. They will be encouraged to develop engagement plans and bonus plans that include sustainability performance indicators.

All functions will be affected. Yet a small group at headquarters will need to stay in place. This central sustainability team will be there to overview and align the companies sustainability activities, share best practices, set the companies KPIs, benchmark and track market developments and update the sustainability strategy accordingly.

More information on sustainability developments and best practices in my book ‘Your customers want your products to be green’. The book contains insights based on interviews with 19 senior sustainability & CSR managers of European frontrunners. Let me know what you think about it!