How can sustainability professionals rise to the challenge of the climate emergency and Covid-19?

The pandemic is being framed as a chance to build back greener - but new leadership styles will be necessary to do so

Published by Forster Communications and the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the report is based on a string of interviews with individuals who are both regarded as “green leaders” themselves, and with those in high-level roles at organisations often cited as sustainability leaders.

Among the interviewees are Mike Barry, the former director of Marks & Spencer’s sustainable business initiative ‘Plan A’; Ella’s Kitchen chief executive Mark Cuddigan; The Body Shop’s global director of activism Kate Levine; ITV’s senior manager for social purpose Julia Giannini and Iceland Foods’ head of sustainability and CSR Hil Berg.

Each of these individuals was asked to describe the skills and traits which will be necessary for sustainability leaders in the 2020s, in the context of movements such as climate activism, zero-waste and Black lives matter, and nations seek to rebuild from the economic and public health crisis caused by Covid-19.

Throughout the interviews, five traits were raised repeatedly: conviction, humility, imagination, integrity and passion. A person who embodies all five will be brave enough to challenge the status quo and drive a sustainability agenda that goes beyond incremental change, delivering results in line with the scale of global environmental, social or economic crises, the report concludes.

“Bravery is what separates managing decline and mitigating impact from making progress and saving the world we live in,” the report states.

“Act timidly and there is a danger that piecemeal efforts and activity around sustainability will achieve little; the moment to act will pass us by. Act with bravery and we may be in time to secure the future for generations to come.”

Brave sustainability leaders do not simply materialise out of thin air, however. The report argues that organisations must foster the right conditions for them to thrive and for their actions to achieve their full potential, giving them the tools needed to start a movement, the resources to achieve lofty goals and the opportunity to train and engage others in their work.

Enabling categories for bravery can fall into one of three groups, the report states: purpose, people and practice. On ‘purpose’, organisations which are open to change, have a clear set of core values and a vision to drive positive progress beyond their own operations are likely to foster green leaders.

On the ‘people’ aspect, organisations should make staff feel psychologically safe enough to share grand ideas and to criticise existing processes and foster a passion for social and environmental issues beyond the scope of its sustainability, CSR or energy team. Senior-level buy-in and mentorship opportunities are also cited as key enabling factors.

The ‘practice’ aspect covers ways of working and thinking. Organisations wishing to be seen as sustainability leaders and to hire the best talent in the profession should allocate a sufficient budget to initiatives aimed at reducing energy consumption, water consumption, waste and emissions – lest they fail to meet their targets. Organisations should also have a proven track record of accountability and transparency and be willing to fortify governance.

These recommendations come at a time when 60% of UK businesses are planning to decrease investment in sustainability initiatives and related practices and processes as a result of Covid-19, according to Ivalua. The report from CAF and Forster Communications concludes that unless C-suites develop Covid-19 recovery plans that consider not only upfront cost and returns on investment, but long-term benefits, they will face further challenges in the future.

Choose your character

Sustainability is a fairly young profession and, as such, the remit and size of sustainability teams, as well as where they sit within a business, varies dramatically from firm to firm.

The report takes notice of this and, in addition to providing the five overarching traits of sustainability leaders, creates five composite characters to help professionals think about the role they currently play and the role they will need to play in future.

The first of the characters is ‘the firebrand’ – an individual with a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and the willingness to take personal risks to stick to this moral compass. Firebrands are purpose-led and open to change. They should be given support to develop and implement ambitious visions such as net-zero or net-positive.

The second, ‘the campaigner’, is similarly willing to take personal risks and develop lofty visions. They are better at building movements and constantly pushing for change within their organisation and externally than the firebrand, and are best-placed to help ignite a passion for sustainability across all departments. As such, hybrid communications or advisory roles suit them well.


Third comes the collectivist – the expert collaborator. Like the campaigner, collectivists are adept at movement building. They are experts at crafting initiatives in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, ensuring that the benefits of schemes are felt by all. They can help others feel safe enough to be brave.

The strategist is the fourth of the characters. These people are experienced analysts, assessing a mass of information and condensing it into actionable plans. They are best-placed to build the business case for any particular initiative and businesses should utilize their skillset to minimise the unintended negative consequences of their actions.

The last of the characters is the wayfinder –  those who are more comfortable working diligently behind-the-scenes than in a public-facing or strategy-leading role. Wayfinders would be well-placed to conduct sustainability reporting, or engage with third parties to deliver new technologies and processes in line with time-bound commitments. Such professionals are essential to ensure that organisations avoid greenwashing and to foster continual progress – if a business falls short of one goal due to a lack of implementation work, buy-in is less likely to be given for future initiatives.

Sarah George

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