What does the future role look like for the sustainability manager?

Sustainability leaders from AkzoNobel, Asda, Rolls Royce and Taylor Wimpey gave their thoughts on the future role of the sustainability manager during an action-packed first morning of the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum.

Heads of sustainability often say that if they successfully persuade executives to take responsibility for the sustainability agenda they will work themselves out of a job.

Over the past two years there has been a growing trend towards the head of sustainability role disappearing, with responsibilities being handed over to heads of other business functions such as finance, sourcing and product design.

A prime example of this phenomenon has been illustrated at global paint manufacturer AzkoNobel, where global sustainability director Chris Cook is set to leave after eight years in the role.

The decision on Cook’s departure came after he conducted a successful “change-management” programme across the company, working closely with global functions to embed sustainability in core processes.

Speaking on a high-level panel at the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum in London yesterday (24 January), Cook spoke about how his redundancy had been predetermined on his first day in the job.

He said: “When I first started the role, my boss told me ‘your job is to make yourself redundant’, which was a bit scary. But 18 months ago, I reviewed the progress we’d made into embedding sustainability into the business and concluded that the time was getting closer to making myself redundant.

“My feeling was that we no longer need a sustainability director around the management table because actually it was starting to become an excuse for some of the other directors to not step up to the plate. The thing that really made me think that I had got it right was when my boss said to me ‘I need to step up now, don’t I?’”

Normalising sustainability

Cook will leave AkzoNobel in two months’ time, having led the development and roll out of a new AkzoNobel sustainability strategy and company-wide identity “Planet Possible”, significantly increasing awareness of sustainability in the business.

All of the company’s key metrics have improved during his time, notably carbon emissions, which have reduced by 3% per year on average.

With the low-carbon agenda now deeply embedded in AkzoNobel’s company culture, the structure of the sustainability team will be scaled down, although there will still be some sustainability experts at a corporate level and in business areas.

Cook said the key to changing employee behaviour was through “normalising” sustainability issues across the business and through the supply chain.

“Normalising of the issue so that it becomes part and parcel of business issues, not just sustainability issues is a really important part of this. They’ve just become another range of issues to solve and your radar is such that you are understanding these issues as regular issues. There are new issues that come into that but it is how you find a home in the business for those to  become normal issues. 

“The critical thing that has to come through is that you are taking action in accordance with those issues. It’s one thing to highlight those issues as important. We all want our suppliers to lower carbon, but finding a mechanism that rewards them that doesn’t cost more money is very difficult. But once you start making decisions differently as a result of having identified these actions, that’s when you start to normalise it.”

Improvement programmes

There was a general consensus among the panel that the time of big sustainability teams is over. Rachael Everard, group sustainability manager at Rolls-Royce, agreed with Cook that her job title will become less common in the future, as more teams and functions incorporate sustainability.

Everard, who heads up a team of two sustainability professionals in a company of 15,000, said the opportunity for sustainability managers now is to engage more people on a wide range of issues, from human rights to gender equality through their own areas of expertise.

She did insist, however, that even when sustainability is fully incorporated into the everyday business practices of an organisation, sustainability managers will still need to retain a central role in due to their unique knowledge and skillsets.

She said: “I spend 90% of my time working on improvement programmes and trying to engage other roles and functions in what they can do to contribute to the sustainability agenda. That works very effectively.

“Having said that, I do think the sustainability professional has a unique set of skills and breadth across the organisation that you won’t find in other teams and roles, which is why I do think you need to retain some small central area.”

Changing agenda

Everard’s thoughts were echoed by Asda’s sustainable business director Chris Brown, who has worked at the company for 16 years, before Asda even had a dedicated sustainability department.

He has overseen the retailer’s performance against a sector-wide Courtauld Commitment to reduce food waste, and is helping to develop strategies that assist Asda’s owner Walmart in reaching its science-based targets for 2025.

With so much corporate sustainability action on the horizon, Brown sees his role, and others like it, as being a crucial part of the process.

Brown said: “The sustainability agenda has never stopped changing, and consequently, becoming obsolete would only be possible if we were only delivering one fixed agenda, but that’s not the case,”

“We’re drawing on that at the moment with the plastics debate. Lots of things have been tried and we are able to use that as an experience. I don’t see it as something that gets passed out into the business because we will be facing another set of issues.”

George Ogleby

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