Professionalising sustainability practice: the pros and cons

The big question at the recent GACSO (Global Association of Corporate Sustainability Officers) event hosted by Boots was: To professionalise sustainability practice, or not?

Listening to the speakers, I initially thought it would be a good idea – not least because I’m all too familiar with the CSR ‘BBQ test’! But as I took part in the roundtable discussion among fellow CR practitioners, I started to waver. 

The practitioners’ CON-clusion

Our breakout group concluded that professionalisation wasn’t the route to follow. By contrast, our ultimate aim should be to make ourselves redundant within 20 years. 

We agreed that getting too specialised isn’t good on an individual, company or societal level. We need broader knowledge and skills. We need to quietly influence colleagues and get them to take ownership for the organisation’s material actions, not see it as someone else’s responsibility (ie the professional CR’s job). 

Besides, we believe the real shift will come from customers, who expect corporates to guide them on making lifestyle and consumption changes to something more sustainable.  This isn’t the job of a sustainability professional or department – it has to involve far more people across the company.  So, we felt sustainability should be about sharing principles and letting other people integrate those in a way that’s relevant to what they do. Also, we need to collaborate with others we wouldn’t normally work with, because thinking outside the box will lead to the most sustainable breakthroughs. 

Our group wasn’t too kind to the academics. They have our respect, but work on a different timescale – what business wants now, universities need two years for.  We’ve all learnt on the job, which can be hit and miss, but it’s equally hard to find the right courses. We questioned whether professional qualifications actually open doors, or whether they are just a ‘badge’. 

In short, we concluded it was better to have broader business skills with practical CR experience than to follow a single sustainability framework that puts some letters after our name but leaves us in a silo. 

Our group was last to feed back at the plenary session and as I listened to the pro-professionalisation arguments, I started to wonder if our group had gone down the wrong route? 

The PROs of professionalisation

One of the key points for me is that we have to address the risk that if we do nothing, we leave the door open to others to come in, claim they know everything about CSR (when they don’t), do it badly and give us all a bad name. 

Professionalisation would give us more legitimacy and make it easier to get our voice heard, but it must be built on a set of beliefs that we practitioners would implement by influencing and persuading others.  It has to balance theory and practice – hands-on know-how plus continual professional development. 

And perhaps most pertinently for sustainability professionals, we need to take a generational view and start to set things in motion now, so that in 20 years’ time, our profession is held in the same regard as others, attracting the best talent and delivering sustainable breakthroughs built on tried and trusted methods. We owe it to future generations to gather and pass on our knowledge in a professional way, so that they can take it and develop it way beyond what we think is possible today. 

A healthy balance

To give everyone due credit, each group listened carefully and respectfully to the other. I was not alone in starting to lean back towards professionalising sustainability. And by the end of the event, I’d describe opinion as ‘balanced’, definitely not split. 

We generally agreed that, long-term, our practice needs to head in the direction of professionalisation, but for now we must take our own precautionary approach and take time to consult widely, take concerns on board and get it right. 

But what do you think? GACSO wants you on board and welcomes your views.  I’d be interested to know too – please get in touch.  

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