In the sustainability space we have all been talking about sustainability ‘going mainstream’, and ‘moving out of the silo’, for years. Well, now we’re getting what we wished for.  Surveys show citizen concerns at never-before-seen heights, climate action is front page in mainstream news all over the world and investors are increasingly considering sustainability issues in their decisions.

This has big implications for sustainability teams. Don’t worry, they aren’t actually obsolete, but it is important to think about the future of the corporate sustainability team after 2020, as we enter a new era for sustainability.

Sustainability strategy will be business strategy

In a recent piece of research by the Harvard Business Review 99% of CEOs agreed that “sustainability issues are important to the future success of their businesses”. Amazingly 62% said they would link their pay to sustainable outcomes.

We’ve always understood the business of the future is sustainable, but now it’s become clear to everyone else. And it’s not just in terms of reducing operational impact or aiming for net positive. Between the impacts of climate change, resource constraints and a history of poor communications around the subject, sustainability has become a huge risk for business, as well as a vast and largely untapped opportunity.

It’s brilliant that sustainability has become so central to the business agenda, but what does it mean for dedicated sustainability teams? If business strategy and sustainability strategy are to become intertwined, will a small team, historically regarded as an adjunct to serious business, be allowed to play in this space?

Good sustainability professionals keep abreast of a huge range of issues touching every business function from risk, HR, operations and procurement, to marketing, communications, strategy, customer service, R&D and legal. The answer should be an easy yes. But we can’t count on it.


Marketing and corporate communications will eat sustainability communications (if they haven’t already)

No longer just a corporate reputation issue, sustainability is becoming centre stage in marketing and advertising. The overwhelming majority of this year’s Cannes Lions Grand Prix winners focused on environmental or social issues. And within our own work at RY, we’re seeing, more and more clients asking for help to put sustainability at the heart of value propositions, marketing and advertising, not just their corporate communications.

The problem is, most sustainability experts don’t make for great marketeers. The communications output of many sustainability teams is still dry and dull, or mired in ‘stock sustainability’ and clichés.

It’s clear that communicating on sustainability topics requires real sustainability expertise. Take Iceland’s recent palm oil campaign, it overpromised with a compelling advert, but the business wasn’t in a position to deliver. It made national headlines for the wrong reasons.

It’s not clear that expertise has to sit in a dedicated team though.

As the rest of the business realises just how important it is to talk about sustainability issues, is the sustainability team going to be trusted to do it? Is the current model of a dedicated team of sustainability experts even going to be relevant?


So, what should you do about it?

The new era of sustainability is a big opportunity for sustainability professionals – we can either be front and centre in shaping the businesses of the future, or we can be pushed aside as others take up the causes we have championed.

Staying front and centre calls for change. It’s no longer be enough to be experts in sustainability issues and the frameworks traditionally used to manage and communicate them. Sustainability teams need to be best friends with their colleagues setting the business strategy and driving marketing and advertising. And they need to get better at these things themselves.

  • Educate and engage with your colleagues

Hopefully you will be pushing at an open door, but even if it’s a struggle, it’s never been more important to be part of the big conversations in your business. To be successful, you need to ditch the sustainability-specific jargon and focus on simplicity and clarity. The technical details of different emissions scopes, or specific SDG indicators don’t matter in this context. The implications for the business and actions required, do.

It’s not just about teaching, it’s also about listening, getting closer to parts of the business you don’t already work with and finding out how sustainability can help them. This should help with our next two suggestions...

  • Be more business savvy

Sustainability is long-term business strategy. It’s risk management. It’s part of the investment case to shareholders. And it’s the value proposition to customers.

You don’t have to be an expert in all of these, but only by understanding them can corporate sustainability teams live up to their full potential in the new era of sustainability.

  • Be more creative

Most sustainability communications, even by consumer brands that run great advertising, are fairly unimaginative.

From what we see, this is true for both internal and external activities. It doesn’t have to be this way – sustainability deals with some of the world’s most fascinating issues and increasingly people want to hear about them. But you need to spark people’s imagination.

The niche nature of sustainability was, for a long time, frustrating. Yet in another way, being important-but-not-central was comfortable; sustainability teams and professionals could focus on what they knew in a relatively safe space.

Now, we’re being invited to the top table. It’s time to step up.


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