Paying Lip Service to Sustainability: Chief Sustainability O

by | February 08, 2010

Let’s face it.

Even though nothing came out of Copenhagen, awareness of easily avoidable phrases like “climate change,” “green careers,” even “green jobs” became hugely Googled, SEO-ed, categorized and tweeted. So, with this new found green knowledge, how will we as employees, consumers and maybe more importantly, as decision-makers, inculcate sustainability in the workplace and bring it to the attention of the executive suite?

The Los Angeles Times on how eco-officers are moving into executive suites.Some companies, realizing the PR component that sustainability and all things green is beginning to carry, are appointing senior managers as sustainability/eco-friendly gurus.The article quotes a real estate, property management executive at CB Richard Ellis, who was promoted to the company’s national director of sustainability. He’s quoted as saying, “I’m an outsider, a real estate guy trying to become an environmentalist.” What is saving him, for now, is his belief in environmental change—a belief, that without monetary advantage could quickly vanish.

Last year, I attended a CSR Practitioner Certification workshop conducted by the Center for Sustainability & Excellence’s (CSE) on CSR strategy and reporting. My co-students there represented several industries and surprisingly many of them held senior management positions at their respective companies. I say surprising because knowledge of CSR principles and reporting tools remains significantly uncommon in the U.S. and their titles spoke of an overestimated understanding of the field. Ironically, maybe the heavy title they carried was responsible for their attendance.

What this certified though was the beginning of a trend that companies were beginning to recognize the need for a sustainability officer, albeit for reputational purposes, and were pulling their executives on the basis of their management experience alone. Of course, theoretically for most roles, as long as you have management experience, the technical knowledge can be obtained. So why not with climate change and energy conservation?

Late last year, I discussed this emerging trend, where I claimed that the diversity managers of the 1990s would inherit the formidable task of teaching, and leading, sustainability at their companies and that just like the executive suite pooh-poohed diversity two decades ago till it was threatening to land them in court, so will it be with the inculcation and reporting of CSR.

Despite the emergence of these officers in the executive suite, the problem of ignorance remains. In a knee jerk reaction, we are instituting them as our green spokespersons but not demanding that they embed sustainability in the company’s long term strategy and all operations. Until regulation and stakeholders support us, achieving corporate social responsibility remains an elusive goal, titles notwithstanding.

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