Will the role of a sustainability professional ever become obsolete?

As sustainability becomes more embedded in core business operations, will the role of a sustainability professional ever become obsolete? Not in the eyes of Asda's sustainable business director Chris Brown, who believes an ever-changing CSR agenda makes the role more important than ever.

The past couple of years have brought about a seismic shift in corporate social responsibility. 


The Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have helped to shine a spotlight on climate change and sustainability globally, while the recent recommendations to publish environmental data alongside financial filings are just one example of the push we are seeing for firms to take a more integrated approach to sustainability.

Could this more central role being taken up by sustainability teams lead to a scenario where the low-carbon agenda is so embedded in company culture that sustainability professionals are no longer needed?

Asda’s sustainable business director Chris Brown certainly doesn’t think so. Brown 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.

“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,” Brown told edie ahead of his appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum in January.

“We’ve now got the SDGs to communicate against and the issues of food waste have become much more apparent in the last couple of years.

“If I went back 10 years, we were all talking about food miles, but the debate has moved on. The consumers are constantly increasing their expectations on our delivery against environmental issues and we also have increasing legislation over this. There are targets that are moving ever faster, but asking people to compromise for the greater good is one of the biggest challenges we face.”

Holistic history

Asda recently surveyed its consumers and found that 92% “care about being green”. However, Brown claimed that one of the key roles for a sustainability professional is to embed knowledge across other departments to ensure that “unforeseen and negative consequences” don’t ensue as the company targets environmental improvements.

One of the key areas that supermarkets are subjected to increased consumer scrutiny is packaging, which impacts food waste as a result. Asda has successfully reduced packaging weight by 27% since 2007, but Brown had to work across other departments and with suppliers to ensure that lighter packaging didn’t impact food safety.

In 2013, Asda changed ‘Chosen By You’ and ‘Butcher’s Selection’ meat packaging to a new skin-like vacuum pack. Not only did this reduce the amount of packaging needed, but it also doubled the shelf-life of the meat and reduced food waste as a result. The introduction of these types of innovations requires holistic communication across the company, but also down into the supply chain. As part of Asda’s involvement in the Courtauld Commitment – an ambitious voluntary agreement, encapsulating retailers, producers and consumers, to reduce food waste by 20% by 2025 – the retailer has taken steps to promote sustainability to its supply chain.

In January 2017, Asda launched an app that delivers an online platform for suppliers to exchange surplus food to help eliminate food waste in the supply chain. The supermarket chain itself donates surplus food to charity platforms such as Fareshare, while a multi-channel initiative to tackle domestic food waste has saved customers £57 a year on average.

Brown said that communicating and working with suppliers was a present and future challenge that retailers were beginning to get to grips with, but that it should be a conversation, rather than Asda “preaching” down its supply chain.

“We are increasingly working with our suppliers to solve problems,” he added. “There’s a maturity and recognition that we can’t just shove goals down the supply chain, and ask them to sort it. It’s a conversation and I don’t see it as us preaching to our suppliers.

“I want them to be offering innovative solutions for their problems. They can be problematic matrixes but as long as people understand what we’re trying to achieve, we’re happy to collaborate. Look at Courtauld 2025, we’ve got to share best-practice and understand and use all the levers we can pull to get to the targets.”

Data management

Brown chairs one of the workstreams for the Courtauld Commitment, which he agrees has been “astonishingly successful” to date. Asda is now teaming with fellow food retailer Co-op to align the environmental data they request from mutual suppliers. The firm’s Sustain & Save Exchange programme provides suppliers with best practice to increase resource efficiency. To date, more than 1,200 members from 350 of Asda’s fresh, chilled and frozen suppliers have collectively saved and invested more than £21m through the programme, which has removed more than 35,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from the supply chain and ploughed £9.6m back into the companies.

Access to this kind of data – whether its best practice for suppliers, or supplier progress to date – is viewed by Brown as the next big frontier for sustainability professionals. The rise in technology and increased external pressure from investors and consumers will amplify the need for more scientific thinking, Brown noted, which would then need to be transcribed into new actions for businesses.

“Looking ahead, I think we’ll get spread thinner,” Brown added. “The issues we have to face into – our impact on the planet – are becoming better understood, they are increasingly granular, and I can see our expertise continue to grow.

“The challenge is to convert scientific thinking into applicable business practice. We’re not on the front foot being pulled, we are still going to be pushing.”

Chris Brown at the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum

Chris Brown is one of the expert speakers that will appear on stage at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum in January 2018.

Taking place on 24-25 January, the Sustainability Leaders Forum will bring together more than 600 ambitious professionals moving beyond environmental objectives to deliver transformational change and create brand value every year.

The two-day event, which runs alongside the Sustainability Leaders Awards, will feature interactive workshops and enhanced networking to give you the most comprehensive and immersive experience on the day. For more information and to book your place at the Forum, click here.

Matt Mace

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