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The rise and rise of the Sustainability Manager

Abbie Reynolds, executive director, Sustainable Business Council


HRINZ magazine February 04


Ten years ago I got my first role in sustainability as Corporate Responsibility Manager at Telecom (now Spark).  At the time there were only a dozen or so of us doing that sort of job in New Zealand, despite a Labour government focused on it and requiring it of businesses they purchased from.


Since then, the corporate landscape has changed and the number of sustainability roles has increased, as has their prominence and influence. Many of our leading companies are now committing serious resource, salaries and authority to them.


In the past, sustainability and corporate responsibility roles were 'nice to haves', treated as peripheral to the real work of the organisation.  This too is changing. Sustainability Managers are increasingly at the heart of business operations, strategy and stakeholder relations. They are becoming more senior, often reporting directly to C-level roles, with a growing role as trusted advisor to the CEO.


This change, in just a few short years, is energising. Suddenly a career in sustainability, also known as corporate social responsibility, is not only attainable, it is sought after.


Drivers of sustainable business


Almost every week I get an inquiry from a student or professional, asking how they can get into a sustainability role.  This is hardly surprising given how often we hear that millennials want to do work that feels meaningful and can have impact.


In a recent article, the Stanford Social Innovation Review suggests the position could well lead the fourth industrial revolution, making the case that sustainability managers are uniquely positioned to help companies navigate the dilemmas and opportunities of an uncertain future.


And that might explain why overseas, major corporates like Microsoft, DuPont and SAP Software have Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO) sitting in executive positions alongside CEOs and CFOs.  Auckland Council has a non-Executive CSO role tasked with leading sustainability across the organisation.


In the UK, the CEO of multinational insurance company Aviva, Mark Wilson, credits the company's leadership in sustainability to the work done he's with his "trusted sustainability advisor". On a recent visit to New Zealand, Wilson (a Kiwi) told a packed room of business leaders that the company's financial performance had improved along with its environmental and social policies.


There are good reasons for this. Research shows businesses that improve their supply chain can reduce operating costs up to 45 per cent. They can also see up to four times the average sales growth, compared to their competitors. In New Zealand, a survey found 66 per cent of workers want to work for a company with strong values, even if paid less.


New Zealand Post's sustainability manager, Dawn Baggaley, believes another reason for the rise of sustainability, is demand from customers, investors and company directors. Increasingly, they are asking businesses to show what their impact is on the environment and community. Tender processes or disclosure documents are going beyond tick-box requests for information about sustainability, to asking for certified evidence that a company is monitoring and reducing its negative impacts.


And the stakes keep rising. Every year, the strain on natural resources like water and soil become more evident, and climate change exacerbates the force of droughts, storms or floods. Businesses and business leaders aren't apart from this. Their growing awareness that they have a role to play is also another driver of the change that we are seeing.


Sustainability Manager 101


A sustainability manager or advisor will often have specialist skills to gather and crunch relevant data, write analysis and reports, and prepare strategies. In a rapidly changing world, they keep up with emerging environmental and social trends and often work across many parts of the business to reduce risk and greenhouse gas emissions, create efficiencies, improve reputation and drive innovation.


I've seen people in this role work on a wide range of projects, from brand campaigns to natural disaster responses, waste management, energy efficiency, recruitment and procurement. The role is about much more than the environment, as sustainability is so often misunderstood to be.


Sustainability managers are at the forefront of risk management; and increasingly have a role to play in identifying opportunity. They help a company anticipate and plan for the long-term, which can include identifying natural resource shortages, or budgeting for increased insurance costs as storm damage intensifies and becomes more frequent with climate change.


Their work also helps reduce reputational risk. A recent survey found 83 per cent of New Zealanders will stop buying products or services if they hear a company isn't ethical. Sustainability managers identify fringe issues that will eventually impact on an organisation's value. They help an organisation think about how to manage those issues in advance, and identify where opportunities might lie too.


The path to sustainability manager


My observation is that the best sustainability managers have a deep and practical knowledge of business, and they use this to make sustainability relevant and valuable to the people in the organisation. Being a sustainability manager is often about leading change, and that is best done by understanding the current context, and how what you're offering can improve things. Pure idealism will only get you so far and, in the worst case scenario, can result in you being side-lined as uncommercial.


Kat McDonald at Lion Breweries believes sustainability managers or advisors need strong communication skills on top of technical skills, so they can effectively communicate complex topics, issues and facts (like climate change) to a variety of different audiences - from executives to directors and community organisations. They need to be able to convince their peers and stakeholders that there are other forms of value in business, beyond the bottom line.


In order to create positive change, sustainability managers often have to challenge business norms that may have previously brought success. I've seen many a sustainability manager banging their head against a wall, engaged in robust conversations with colleagues. Just because a company creates the position, doesn't mean all the barriers are removed.  Resilience is one of the most important capabilities to cultivate.


I often suggest that people already in business explore what they can do from where they already are. Sustainability managers are often leading a change in mind-set as well as activity.  They need allies right across the business.  If you're in procurement, can you implement a sustainable supply chain approach? If you're in marketing, can you influence messages to create positive change? If you're in product development, can you lead changes that result in lower impact from product development, manufacture or launch? If there's already a sustainability manager in your organisation, they might have some ideas about the work you can do to support them.


Another option is to do some volunteer work for an organisation working directly in sustainability or a course in sustainable business at your local polytech or university.


As Kiwi businesses see a growing body of evidence that sustainability is no longer a 'nice to have', but rather a 'must-have' required by customers, boards and investors, the sustainability manager is moving away fast from the edges of business to the boardroom.