Should sustainability professionals (still) be working to make themselves redundant?

It’s a question which leaders in the profession have been mulling for several years. When edie was founded 25 years ago, corporate sustainability was in its infancy. Many firms had no dedicated staff and those that did either tasked them with a compliance-based to-do list or with carrying out philanthropic initiatives on the periphery of core business.

Fast-forward to the 2020s and the perfect storm of top-down (regulatory changes, new scientific research) and bottom-up (growing public awareness and activism) pressures – as well as physical risks crystalising in this era of polycrisis – are prompting smart businesses to see their core strategy and sustainability strategy as the same thing.

Beyond mergers of strategy documents, this prioritisation can be seen in the trends towards integrated financial and ESG reporting and towards giving board members environmental KPIs. A PWC-led study published in February concluded that more than three-quarters of large businesses have now linked executive pay outcomes to climate targets, up from less than 50% in 2020.

And, promisingly, in edie’s recent survey of hundreds of energy and sustainability managers, 91% said their chief executive was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ engaged with ESG. The proportion stood at 81% for the wider board.

But, of, course, a company’s culture does not hinge solely on executives. Mary Kay Cosmetics’ founder Mary Kay Ash is often quoted as saying that “a company is only as good as the people it keeps”. Sustainability professionals will need to embed culture beyond the C-suite if they are to ever make themselves redundant.

There is a growing body of research to prove that the workforce of the 2020s are increasingly seeking employers with strong ethics. But there is also a wealth of proof that, for most people in their day-to-day job, there is confusion on how to be part of the solution to big, global challenges like the climate crisis.

Are you an agitator or an ambassador?

To help turn intention into impact, a growing number of businesses are now assigning ESG-related KPIs to all staff. One such business is innocent Drinks, which exceeded a pledge for at least 90% of employees to have such a target in 2020.

“As we know, working for a business you are proud of is becoming more and more important to staff …  But it’s one thing to know that a company cares about these issues, and knowing what you can do at your level is a bigger question,” explains innocent’s head of force for good in the UK, Emilie Stephenson.

To ensure that all new staff know what is expected of them in terms of ESG, every role description now assigns a related responsibility. Social media and communications staff, for example, are tasked with increasing discussions on topics like climate. Operations and procurement team members are told their work is key to reducing waste and emissions – not just to keeping smoothies and juices on shelves.

For existing staff, Stephenson explains, KPIs have been effectively retrofitted through regular updates to personal development plans.

Beyond giving staff targets, innocent makes a point of considering how their personality and skillset could best aid delivery. Since the mid-2010s, staff have been encouraged to work with their line managers to determine whether they are an  ‘agitator’, ‘activator’, ‘ambassador’ or ‘protector’.

Stephenson says: “I think it works because it’s so tangible – people understand what it is and they can talk to people about it. This, and the language itself, is motivational.”

Many board members are natural ‘protectors’, as they have the seniority to hold teams accountable for taking the actions needed to reach sustainability ambitions. ‘Activators’, meanwhile, specialise in taking the action, delivering specific projects on the ground.

‘Ambassadors’, meanwhile, share innocent’s work with others and advocate externally for a greater focus on sustainability in the private sector and beyond. And being an ‘agitator’ is the most common choice; these people scrutinise current strategies and practices to suggest potential improvements.

Blended roles and B Keepers

Linked to the ‘protector’ role is the role of ‘B Keeper’ – a new title which came into being through innocent’s certification as a B Corp in 2018, and is linked to the protection of B Corp status. In Stephenson’s opinion, the B Corp certification process helped to provide a more “solid framework” of focus areas for staff. She also recounts hearing some team members who were typically not the most vocal speaking up and taking responsibility for certain sets of points during the process.

A similar experience is recounted to edie by Heather Lynch, head of impact and sustainability at fellow B Corp Oddbox. The business, which sells boxes of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste, became a B Corp in 2020 and is currently in the process of re-certifying.

Oddbox is a mission and vision-driven brand, Lynch explains. The mission is fighting food waste. The vision is of a world where all food grown is eaten.

“I see mission and vision as the ‘what’, and the B Corp as a framework for the ‘how’,” Lynch says, adding that the first B Impact assessment prompted a “thorough stock-take of opportunities” and the second as providing a “framework for tracking progress”.

One key opportunity identified through certification was to upskill staff. 70% of Oddbox’s staff have now completed an eight-hour carbon literacy training course, and the business is targeting at least 90% by the end of the year. As Lynch explains, this training ensures that staff have a base understanding of carbon jargon and climate science – and that they are clear on their role in the business’s delivery of net-zero emissions by 2030.

So, most Oddbox staff are officially carbon-literate and several of them are B Keepers. Beyond that, some managers have blended roles, due to their role in creating and delivering the sustainability strategy.

The operations team co-created the firm’s net-zero strategy, with support from Lynch and her junior, plus external consultants. As such, senior operations team members are effective net-zero managers, responsible for delivery and reporting. They are also helping senior logistics and packaging staff to do the same.

“Ownership is just as important as, if not more important than, awareness,” Lynch says. “That, I feel, has been really powerful.”

Ownership is a sure-fire way to ensure that people do not feel strategies or targets are being put on them from the top-down, landing them with an extra burden. Co-creating strategies with staff and emphasising the particular benefits to each group is a tactic gaining popularity far beyond Oddbox; the practice is often called green jiu jitsu and there are specific training courses.

The final say 

So, say your business has taken similar steps to Oddbox and innocent. It has a long-term sustainability strategy backed up with interim goals, and governance mechanisms in place to report against these and keep them on board members’ desks. Your staff all know exactly what role they have to play in contributing to goals, and relish taking that action.

Do they still need you?

“I don’t necessarily think there needs to be a separate sustainability function, but there needs to be space and time to think about – and plan for – sustainability over the long-term if not,” Lynch says.

She also emphasises how, even if sustainability is embedded, reporting and employee engagement are ever-evolving pieces of work. On the former, her junior is a sustainability data analyst, and she recounts how the addition of this role has left her with more time for “strategy, influencing, holding people accountable and also researching for the future”.

innocent’s Stephenson, however, believes that most businesses are not quite ready to hold that space for sustainability without having in-house experts.

She says: “Douglas [Lamont, former innocent chief executive] has previously advocated for sustainability being embedded in all teams and, therefore, not needing a separate team. My hunch is that this work is not done yet.

“Yes, everyone should be incentivised to play their part. But you still need a leader, there’s still that need for someone to co-ordinate centrally.

“In due course, yes, I’d love to be made redundant. But, at the moment, when you’ve got strategy to develop and deliver, when staff have conflicting priorities, I’d say you still absolutely need someone to hold the torch.”

It bears noting that while innocent and Oddbox are both B Corps, their staff cultures are doubtless very different. Oddbox, for example, that it has a far smaller – yet far more rapidly-expanding – staff base. It has around 75 staff, up from less than 20 in 2019. innocent has more than 760 staff.

Moreover, Oddbox was founded on that aforementioned mission of fighting food waste. While innocent’s founders have built a company often regarded as an exemplary specimen for purpose-led business, they were initially looking for a reason to leave corporate jobs to be their own boss – and the popularity of their smoothies at a music festival proved to be that reason.

So, one could only imagine the situation at even bigger, older, less agile companies, who still either publicly state their purpose as creating value for shareholders or are so frequently accused of purpose-washing. Such firms may say that they have ‘embedded sustainability’ or that it is ‘in their DNA’, but they may have only just hired their first senior specialist – let alone be ready to make them redundant.

Comments (2)

  1. phil korbel says:

    There’s always a place for sustainability professionals but the time for that being a niche, tucked away in an under-resourced cubbyhole is long past. The climate crisis, regulation and the market all demand that employers mobilise their people at scale – which is what we’ve helped Oddbox do. I’m happy to report that they’re not alone – with heading for 60,000 people certified in Carbon Literacy from Aberdeen to the Antarctic. More info –

  2. Di Booth says:

    I used to say this – my job is to make myself redundant and recently I’ve heard others say it too. But honestly? The exec and management will always need sustainability professionals, even in the most sustainable business. Why? Because the Holy Grail is sustainable development. At the moment we have some examples of good practice in reducing waste or scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions, but not outcomes that are converged with each other and result in effects that, just like nature, are completely circular and symbiotic and add support life.

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