Unleashing the next wave of sustainable business leaders

At this month's edie Live conference in Birmingham, I'll be joining a panel to discuss how we encourage more businesses to join the green revolution. I was pleased to be asked, because the question of how we support and develop sustainable business leaders is something - in my new role as ICRS Chair - I am closely concerned with.

Unleashing the next wave of sustainable business leaders

I took on the role of Chair at the turn of the year. So let me begin by telling you a little about me. I’ve been in the CRS business for over 20 years. I’m a Trustee of the Scottish Power Foundation and before that I was CR Director of RWE Npower for 12 years and a Non Exec. at Secure Meters. I’ve held a variety of civil service and trustee roles, and provided pro-bono support to a range of charities. I’ve seen first-hand the impact of responsible business and experienced some of the challenges that sustainability leaders face in their work.

So how can we encourage more businesses to join the green industrial revolution?

Business does not exist in a vacuum and its license to operate is granted by society. We’re also now seeing investors encouraging business to address its social purpose.

There’s no doubt that customers demand for green products and services will encourage businesses to join the revolution. A case in point is the renewed focus on the old problem of plastic waste. Many companies are now setting public targets to eradicate single use plastics in short time frames, and this will be achieved through innovation and collaboration.

Whilst regulation can help to raise awareness and deliver minimum standards, it has a tendency to stifle innovation. And we need innovation, working in completely different ways and with a different range of stakeholders. Sam Conniff Allende has recently published a fascinating call to action: ‘Be More Pirate’. Sam argues that change comes from challenging and rewriting the rules, not following them blindly – because as the old maxim says: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. The next wave of sustainable business leaders need to be able to challenge the status quo.

B2B relationships are particularly powerful at encouraging more businesses to become sustainable. But not through a box ticking exercise. Companies that are already doing this well work in partnership with their supply chain to help them on the path to the green revolution. This can range from sharing best practice to providing hands on support.

Many of ICRS’s Organisational members are involved in the Buy Social Corporate Challenge. By procuring from social enterprises these businesses have more diverse supply chains, have higher employee retention and are more innovative. Businesses are getting the same quality of goods and services but with a clear benefit to society.

We’ll also be talking about the ‘sustainability echo chamber’ at edie live, something the ICRS discussed last year at its annual debate. Our research provides evidence that sustainability professionals are not a very diverse group. Over half of our members surveyed thought that the CRS profession is in an echo chamber.

We were much more likely than the general population to read broadsheets. Guardian readership is dramatically over represented amongst our members, which is 60% compared to the national average of 6%. We also found that 82% of our members had a university degree and 60% had a parent who had attended university. And whilst many of us counted teachers, accountants and scientists amongst our friends, very few socialised with lorry drivers, postal workers or call centre workers.

This lack of cultural diversity can create a barrier to social and environmental change. For example, we probably don’t have a lot of experience of the dilemmas that others face, like deciding whether to heat or eat. And their voices are rarely heard in the Boardroom.

That’s why our sustainable business leaders need to:

  • Engage and involve others who have a better understanding of social and environmental challenges in our decision making;
  • Work with social enterprises to unlock opportunities. The Unilever Transform program is a great example of how we can build on the best ideas and boldest actions that are coming from entrepreneurs and start-ups;
  • Break down the silos and work smarter with other business functions like HR and procurement; and
  • Find better ways to support our future sustainability leaders, through mentoring, passing on knowledge and expertise, helping them to find their first role, or indeed ensuring that sustainability is a core skill for other professions.

That’s quite a list of actions, but if we are to unleash the next wave of sustainable business leaders, we must innovate, engage our value chains and support younger people in the profession.

IMAGE: Future and current CR and sustainability leaders learning how bring about change by ‘being more pirate’ from author Sam Conniff Allende

Anita Longley is chair of the ICRS 

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