We all know the buzzwords, and we’re all guilty of the occasional eye-roll when we hear them wheeled out: sustainability, eco-friendly, green, ESG. The message now is that companies must all be ecologically aware and mindful of their impact on the environment and that customers and investors are ever-more attracted to enterprises which build this kind of awareness into the fabric of their operation.
Examples of this are easy to find in the corporate world. Adidas has moved to eliminate harmful dyes from its manufacturing processes and is working to minimize the use of non-biodegradable plastic. Coca-Cola has set ambitious targets on water replenishment, while Unilever has reduced its use of unsustainable palm oil. Even Nestlé, once the great corporate Satan and target for student protests everywhere, is committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This is all highly visible. It has come together in an unlikely two-pronged media attack: from one end of the scale, the 17-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, already nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and the main attraction at last year’s UN Climate Action Summit, and from the other, Sir David Attenborough, the 94-year-old doyen of wildlife documentaries and easily the world’s most famous and influential natural historian, who has recently released the Netflix-backed A Life on Our Planet, his “witness statement” on climate change.
These two are in great demand, as authentic voices with no axe to grind except that of averting ecological disaster, but they overlie a fundamental truth that, in business terms, is hugely significant: Get sustainable, or die.
Being green, however, cannot simply be a PR gloss. The other watchword of the current age is ‘authenticity,’ which the public can see (or discern its absence) with extraordinary acuity. As the marketing mastermind Neil Patel puts it simply, “The best way to be perceived as authentic is to BE authentic, so build a purpose for your business beyond making a buck.”
What this means is that a company’s green credentials have to be real, have to be visible and have to translate into action. One way to help work toward that goal would be to have a member of the C-suite exclusively responsible for environmental concerns. Let’s call him or her the chief sustainability officer (CSO).
Why does sustainability need dedicated representation at the very top of an organization? Surely green concerns fall within the purview of the CEO, and have input from finance, marketing and data. They can, of course, but the beauty of appointing a CSO is that it is not only a signal, but a signal that, by its very existence, transforms behavior.
Imagine, for example, that every C-suite meeting involved the company’s new plans having their feet held to the sustainability fire. A new factory in Arizona? Great! So how will it be powered? What contribution will renewable energy make? What are the public transportation links like? How will it interact with the local community and the local ecosystems? It would not be long before asking questions like this became reflexive, a natural instinct within the decision-making process.
Business is also about people. Everyone scoffs at the idea of self-promotion and self-regard, but imagine if environmental activists, potential investors and prospective clients could look through a list of the U.S.’s top 20 chief sustainability officers, or the CSO of, say, Amazon or Google was the headline act at a major industry conference. Environmentalism still bears the faint whiff of the crank—did you vote for Ralph Nader? Do you know who the Green Party’s presidential nominee is? Thought not—but this could be a huge step in further mainstreaming sustainability and ESG, making it part of companies’ very DNA.
Play around with the idea. Imagine the sort of person you could appoint as a CSO. Maybe not just another corporate suit (although, you’d want someone with a good business brain); maybe a lobbyist who knows the inner workings of Capitol Hill as well as Wall Street and can turn your idealistic plans into hard action; maybe a brilliant science PhD with first-class communication skills; maybe a former regulator who has tired of being a gamekeeper and fancies a spell as a poacher. Think of what that voice could bring to the table when decisions are made. Think of the new perspectives, the new ideas, the new networks.
It was that corporate titan Kermit the Frog who reminded us it’s not easy being green. But it’s vital, and it’s exciting. The business world is bursting with possibilities, and if you can imagine it, then you can do it.
Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.