Future gazing the role of the sustainability profession

It's a tricky thing, predicting the future. So, before looking forward let us reflect upon on what changes we've seen in the CRS profession over the last 20 years. There's no doubt we are a profession that is growing in maturity, and yet still evolving.

Future gazing the role of the sustainability profession

The recent CR Salary Survey found that now over 48% of professionals had been in the job for more than 10 years. In that time CRS has become more mainstream and better understood, it has broadened in scope from community investment and environmental protection to embrace human rights, ethics, economics and social impacts. It has risen up the political agenda and there’s more public awareness than ever before. 

The Institute of CR and Sustainability was established to recognise CRS professionals and provide a framework of competencies and skills, a code of conduct and a strong network to exchange current thinking and best practice. Our challenge will be to ensure that as the profession evolves we continue to support the future CRS professional.

By 2038 we’ll have passed some key sustainability milestones, particularly the SDGs and the Paris agreement. I hope that as a profession we will have learned from the experience of delivering these milestones and be more forward thinking in shaping future initiatives. Undoubtedly new ‘hot topics’ will emerge over time. But it’s important that business does not react in a knee-jerk manner, rather it must plan a considered and strategic approach. Something that will become increasingly challenging in the digital age.

Looking into my crystal ball towards 2038, I see three drivers for the CRS profession.

New Business Models

Human population growth is predicted to be nine billion by 2050. This will challenge our ability to manage scarce resources and increase competition for those resources. By 2038 successful businesses will be clear about their social purpose. And, will enhance rather than reduce ecosystems and better deliver social equity.

CRS professionals will still need to influence and persuade but being able to build capacity within organisations, and innovate, will become even more important. The increased interest in, and urgency for, change will mean that CRS professionals will need to engage with a broader range of stakeholders. The ability to listen and reach consensus will be critical, and yet challenging as we become even more reliant on social media and concerned about ‘fake news’.  The qualities of integrity and honesty will be in high demand. CRS professionals will need to adhere to a strict code of conduct if they are to retain their credibility and influence.  

As the challenges we face become more complex, we will need effective collaboration between experts, better engagement with ‘non-experts’ and indeed a greater collaboration between businesses operating in the same sector. We may see the rise of the ‘peripatetic CRS professional’, employed by one company or jointly funded, an expert in a key aspect of sustainability who moves between businesses. I’d also like to see greater diversity – especially culturally in the profession. We are in danger of entering our own echo chamber and diversity of background and experiences will be critical in the future. The increased focus on sustainability from the financial institutions means that the CRS professional will also need to be able to speak credibly with investors. 

The Rise and Rise of the Millennials

The Millennials will, by 2038, be middle-aged and if current thinking is to be believed will have pushed business far harder to be more sustainable. They will also bring sustainability thinking into a range of ‘mainstream’ roles such as HR, procurement, and finance, and will need a common language to do that successfully. But many others are unlikely to be working in what we now perceive as ‘conventional’ ways. I anticipate a rise in social enterprises and a more ‘disruptive’ approach led by the millennial generation who will innovate and collaborate in ways we can only imagine today. We may also see a greater coalescence between the roles of charities and business as addressing social inequalities is seen as a more mainstream role for business.

Digital activists will be a driver for harmful practices going out of business. Social media is making the relationship between businesses and consumers instantaneous, meaning there will be less time for planning a considered response. Many of us will need to be more adept at consumer engagement, or reputations that took years to build could be dashed in a matter of a few tweets.

Articial Intelligence (AI) & Big Data

AI and big data will be the source of significant challenge and opportunity for business and individuals. But for the CRS professional, technology heralds a whole host of new ethical and sustainability dilemmas. Today we are only touching on some of the implications of this emerging technology, but the pace of change will accelerate exponentially. The amount of data we are now collecting is snowballing.

We currently consider the security and privacy issues associated with this data but as the information is processed we face an extraordinary opportunity to understand each other and the world we inhabit. We are yet to really scratch the surface on the implications of the workforce potentially being replaced by technology. A massive, and to many a frightening prospect. In this environment, the CRS professional’s role becomes more critical and we must continue to challenge and drive the direction of these emerging technologies for the benefit of all.

CRS professionals will likely have less involvement in the data collection, as AI and big data will easily replace and enhance those elements. We’ll see greater reliance on data modelling to inform our decision making, but this must not be at the expense of engaging with stakeholders. Indeed, the importance of stakeholder engagement may be heightened. As the world becomes more transparent through social media, and individuals have a louder voice and broader reach, organisations will be held to account more easily.

In summary, we’ll need to proactively manage reputations and quickly respond to ethical and responsibility dilemmas. We’ll manage more groups and technology will facilitate different forms of engagement. Big data will provide new insight into sentiment and we’ll be working with the output. The CRS professional in 2038 will be an effective communicator, an innovator, have a robust and credible understanding of the complexities of sustainability, be able to form strong alliances and have access to other expertise. But most of all they will act with integrity.

As ever, the future is full of challenges and opportunities. I do hope I’m around to reflect on how we’ve met them.

Anita Longley is chair of the ICRS 

Comments (1)

  1. Phelan Gowing-Mikellides says:

    Great article, Anita.

    As one of the ‘many other millennials’ working in an unconventional way towards a more secure sustainably orientated role in business I find that there’s a lot of cynicism and doubt towards what we do. I’m wondering if earlier on in your career you faced similar opposition and skepticism from those who’d followed a more well-trodden path into non-sustainable business. If so, do you have any advice for the younger generation working their way forward now?

    If you want to understand better where I’m coming from have a look at the social enterprise I run. http://www.remindnetwork.com

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