Last week, I spoke to Kathrin Winkler, the Chief Sustainability Officer at EMC. As a visible face in the sustainability movement, and a minority for the Fortune 500, Kathrin represents a shift from the usual lip service most companies pay to addressing sustainability in their operations.
For most companies, even today, sustainability remains a buzzword, sufficient for PR and reputation-building purposes. A recent survey conducted by McKinsey added statistical evidence to this claim, noting that 36% of the respondents picked sustainability to mean "Maintaining or improving corporate reputation", 14% picked "personal interest of leadership" and an additional 11% chose "Attracting, motivating and retaining talented employees."
Despite these bleak reports, there are some companies that continue to push along their agenda to move sustainability from a discussion to complete immersion in their long term strategy and innovation standards. EMC presents one such example. Also worth noting is that the technology industry, in particular, has the going tough for themselves and sustainability because their very products depend on excessive use of energy and electrical utilities. To then emerge as a leader in the industry, is worth deliberation.
As we talked about her role, her vision and her motivation, it became clear that for Kathrin, sustainability meant a whole lot more than the standardized impression of a "sustainability agenda." It meant rewriting EMC's strategy, business model and hitting the very core value system of the company. "My vision of sustainability is having it incorporated into a core value system and a way of thinking. Making it a part of the company's identity and worldview...So for me, my mission is really not only setting direction, priorities and strategy, but also incorporating it into the way we work and what we do, besides catalyzing people and inspiring them."
Here are her interesting takes on a few of the many issues surrounding sustainability, as a concept, as a corporate policy, as a possible career option, as a professional epithet and its future.
The title: Chief Sustainability Officer
You have to be a little careful about the term "chief sustainability officer." I think more companies do have a person who is in a role guiding the company's sustainability program. I would think about it more broadly than the title would imply. It is fairly common but still not typical.
Her vision for EMC
My vision of sustainability is having it incorporated into a core value system and a way of thinking. Making it a part of the company's identity and worldview. And the closest analog to that is quality. So for me, as a role, my mission is really not only setting direction, priorities and strategy, but also incorporating it into the way we work and what we do, besides catalyzing people and inspiring them.
My peers and I often have conversations amongst ourselves about whether our job is to put ourselves out of business. And, to some extent, I think it is. I don't think we're going to be out of business anytime soon, but even in my own role-–I've been in this role less than two years--I've already seen a movement where you start moving from the "blocking and tackling" to strategic. Looking outside from where I am today, where do I want to go? Where could I go to? It then becomes more and more strategic as the operational aspects of it get driven into the way in which we work.
A Profession Called Sustainability
There are many people who are interested in pursuing sustainability, and I almost always tell them the same thing–you can't become a sustainability professional. Well, you can, but it's different from what you can do. Where you're going to add value is when you bring that together with something else. For example, when I think of what skills are needed in sustainability, I want people to understand what sustainable design is, what the financial implications are and how we can measure and quantify them, articulate them.
Sustainability should be a minor in college–students should major in finance, material science, engineering, or business with a minor in sustainability. And these are the people who will change the world. Me, I'm just a coach. I'm catalyzing, influencing, setting our priorities, but I'm not going to change the world. I'm trying to change mindsets, but it's the people throughout the company that are innovating new technologies, new processes and new business models. And people who know simply what sustainability is won't be able to do that.
Sustainability as a career option
think right now it's all over the place. I happen to report to an executive vice president and chief counsel. I know a lot of people are in environmental health and safety, and marketing. Some companies make the personal directly report to the CEO. I don't think it belongs in HR, but that would be a finer place for it than some of these other ones.
Discussing Sustainability in the Board Room
There has been a change, even in the last two years, and I can't say how much of it comes from my work within EMC and how much of it comes from outside changes, but yes it's talked about quite differently.
I had a hallway conversation with a woman last week who is part of our supply chain team. We have a very strong social and environmental responsibility program in our supply chain organization, and they are doing great things by working with our suppliers, conducting audits, making sure they know our code of contact, asking them to report their greenhouse gas emissions, working with them to reduce packaging, working with them to change material substances, etc. And she said to me, "It must be so great for you to be coming in everyday and doing things that help improve the world." I said, "Well, you are. You're the one that's doing it." And she just kind of looked at me, and said, "I haven't thought of it that way."
EMC and the UN Global Compact
We're definitely going back to look at it again, we just need to review the individual clauses. One of the things about EMC that I'm very proud of, while being a challenge for us, is that we don't sign on to things that we aren't absolutely committed to complying with, whether voluntarily or not. So, we've had some examples where we were dinged by some rating systems for not having made certain commitments, because we knew we wouldn't make them.
Government Regulation & CSR Reporting
The investment community is going to have to step in. For the IT industry, historically it has largely been a customer issue, but lately, it is becoming a competitive one as well. In the midst of these, investors are going to have a huge impact. It's not just that investors are demanding evidence of sustainability as a governance issue; it is also a judiciary responsibility to the shareholders. Also, the pressures in implementing these turn out to be stress points between short-term financial metrics and long-term sustainability thinking. So, while financials tend to be short-term, making fundamental sustainability changes is a long-term plan.
Read the complete interview: View from the Top: EMC's Chief Sustainability Officer
Add to the discussion. Do you see sustainability played out differently at your company, if at all? Are you part of a green team? Does your company feature its Sustainability goals and progress on the Intranet? Weigh in by leaving a comment, emailing In Good Company or connect with on Twitter @VaultCSR!