Where should Sustainability sit?
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
The easy answer is that sustainability is part of everyone's role within a company. But very few companies have reached the maturity to make embedded sustainability successful. Some companies have Chief Sustainability Officers at the executive level while others take a grass roots approach. Ultimately, there is no single right answer - different organizations and cultures will have different approaches. What is important is to take a thoughtful approach to organizational design for sustainability and to understand the trade-offs and perceptions that the various choices create.
Some of the areas where we've seen sustainability leadership reside include:
Chief Sustainability Officer/Executive
Supply Chain and Procurement
Local Green Teams
Of course, none of these choices are exclusive and all companies tackling the issue of sustainability have participation from many of these areas. Where the leadership of the effort resides will impact the focus, style, and outcome from the team.
The Pros and Cons of a Green Team
Having a stand-alone sustainability team may make sense, particularly for an organization just starting out on their sustainability journey. This team can bring fresh insights and new ways of looking at the business and its operations both through focused effort and the ability to bring is specialized expertise. But there are some significant disadvantages that should be considered before creating one.
Ensuring adequate funding The output of any green team will be projects. Regardless of what type of project, replacing light bulbs to engaging employees, the execution of these projects will require funding. With a stand-alone green team, justifying the funding can become very difficult since the value seen by the green team may not be valued the same way by other internal funding mechanisms. This can lead to frustration on both sides and a logjam of interesting ideas with no results. Although easier to say than do, this problem can be solved by creating ring-fenced funding for the green team or by modifying the existing funding value equation to include sustainability.
Risking compartmentalization Corporations are built on division of labor - that's what makes them extremely efficient and capable. But when you create a green team, there can also be a perception that you're making sustainability "someone else's problem." This can often manifest in inefficient decision making with sustainability not even being considered and decisions having to be revisited later through a sustainability lens costing time and money. The most common example is a construction team who selects equipment and designs on low initial cost without the green team engagement on total cost of ownership including energy costs.
Getting collaboration It's human nature to be skeptical when an outsider comes in with a supposedly better way to do the job you've already been doing. Green teams face this same problem. Though they rely on other parts of the business to both identify and deliver the benefits of greater sustainability, having a separate team can create initial mistrust and a lack of collaboration. It's important to recognize this as a potential pitfall up front and leverage change management tactics in the creation, deployment, and every day interactions of the green team with the organization.
There are choices on how to create the leadership and generate the action to achieve higher levels of sustainability in your company. They are not mutually exclusive, and they are not permanent... so take the time to make a thoughtful choice, make it, and see how it works and what it uncovers about the best way to drive the benefits of sustainability throughout your organization.