Should the aim of the sustainability manager be to put themselves out of a job?

05 January 2018

Business people queued outside job centre

Almost for as long as companies have had CSR managers, and now sustainability managers, some people have put forward the proposition that the ultimate aim of such people should be to put themselves out of a job.

At one level, the logic is sound. Companies will make the biggest contribution to sustainability – and will serve themselves better in their commercial objectives – if they fully embed the process of sustainability into how they operate day-to-day. 

When CSR teams were first created, they would often sit in a side-office quite apart from the rest of the business. They would have a budget for dispensing some generally charitable goodwill, preferably with some brand payback, however ill-defined that might be. And also a budget for producing the annual sustainability report.

Rather a lot of teams still operate on exactly that premise, to be honest.

But for many years, some of the leading businesses have made a point of seeking to embed responsibility for sustainability across the business. So the commercial managers, the country managers, the procurement professionals, the product designers – they all own the part of the bigger mission that it makes most sense for them to own. 

And if you do that, then you don’t need a specialist, do you? In fact – the argument goes – you want to get rid of the specialists because their mere existence makes it harder to embed responsibility across the business. So long as they are there, with ‘sustainability’ printed on the sign hung on their office door, then whenever there’s an issue to be faced, people will assume it’s that person’s job, not their’s, to deal with it. 

I don’t agree. We will always need specialists. But it comes down to how their role is defined.

Firstly, the basic logic for that argument is just wrong. Most people in every business understand that they have a primary responsibility to contribute to the bottom line. They entirely get that they have a little portion of that expectation on their shoulders. Just because there’s a finance director, it doesn’t mean everyone thinks it’s not their job to make money. They understand that the finance director is there to hold them accountable, and to drive focus. It is their job to execute.

You will always need someone in sustainability to hold people accountable and drive focus. Because we know that organisations left to their own devices don’t do this instinctively and intuitively.

But that does mean that the role of the specialist needs to be two-fold.

  1. Working and influencing across the business, to help highlight challenges and to work with department heads to generate effective solutions. They are the resource available to everyone that is there to help them achieve their objectives, and to do so in the best possible way. It doesn’t matter a damn how big their budget is, so long as they are seen as a powerful and helpful ally.
  2. Holding the specialist knowledge that the company needs to institutionally know about a wide range of fast-moving issues in order to navigate them. So you want everyone to be responsible for sustainability? Really? So that means the procurement managers have to understand every issue relating to chemical pesticides in cotton, child labour in lots of different countries, emerging intelligence about possible environmental issues with one unheard-of ingredient, the science and politics of climate change etc etc etc. No. You don’t tell all your people that they have to be expert in every single process the business undertakes. They specialise in the thing they can master, and then others inform and guide on the things they can’t. That’s how big businesses work. And for a reason.
  3. Holding the business accountable. The parameters for social responsibility and sustainability are still evolving, and lots of less robust companies find space therefore to put out very woolly information about what they are doing and to what benefit. Invested in a £1m health and safety programme, but accidents are still going up? A lazy company will submit its programme for awards (and, sadly, might well win some). A robust company will confront the obvious reality that its expensive programme is clearly flawed in some way. Left to their own devices, people will tend to the former. You need a robust presence who will be clear that is not an option. Guess who?

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of nuances of all of this that need to be thought through and thrashed out.

Edie sustainability leaders forum 2008

At the edie sustainability leaders forum on 24th January, experienced and expert practitioners from Drax, AkzoNobel, Taylor Wimpey, H&M and Asda will be chewing this over. It’s just one of the far-reaching conversations due to take place during the two days. See here for more on that. You can get a 15% discount as a reader of this blog by quoting the code MALLEN15

But now I put the question to you. What do you think? Is there a space for sustainability professionals? Or does the whole approach we’ve seen to date need to be dismantled and rethought?