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Building sustainability programs from the ground up

The first year in a new role can be daunting. Here are lessons from one sustainability professional's first year in the role.

Collage of blackboard

Lessons from year one in a newly created sustainability role. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email [email protected]. ]

Sustainability is becoming a mainstream practice, and a wave of new companies are entering the space of creating positive social and environmental impact. The result? Many companies start a sustainability practice or social impact department, often with one person spearheading much of the foundation building alone. I’m one of them.

As part of the newly formed social impact team at Braze, a leading customer engagement platform, and the company’s first sustainability hire, I understand firsthand the challenges of building a team from the ground up. Over the last year, I’ve focused on building out the environment and ESG strategy and programs. Here are the things I wish someone had told me when I first started, based on my own experiences and learnings.

1. Understand the business and assess gaps

This one sounds obvious, but you will need to spend time getting to know the company and the business model. Sustainability should not work in a silo. The goal is to integrate sustainability into the business, and for that, you need to deeply understand the product, the technologies and the supply chain. 

Successful sustainability practitioners and innovators are business savvy. You can create a sustainability benchmark to thoroughly assess any gaps and how your company is performing compared to leaders (my former training as a sustainability strategist at Futerra came in handy for this). You won’t be able to fill the gaps at once so figure out what is most critical to address first. Understanding compliance and emerging regulation, customer and investor motivations, speaking to colleagues, as well as conducting a materiality assessment will help. I developed a benchmarking tool that we updated throughout the year which served as a helpful progress tracker. Starting off, it’s about filling the gaps and mitigating risk so that you earn your license to be a leader. 

2. Get to know your stakeholders and their motivations

Driving sustainability progress at a company is like being a politician and a diplomat. It’s a cross-functional job, and you will need to build relationships to succeed. You need to influence others, balance different needs and wants, all while driving towards your goal or vision. There is a reason you were hired to do this work. Talk to your colleagues. Be curious. 

Identify who might be an advocate and who might be someone you’ll need to work harder to convince. Understand how sustainability priorities at the company emerged and connect with those who were involved in creating them. It’s important to understand how this work was getting done before there was a formal team. It will help you identify motivations, key stakeholders and internal champions. Identifying an executive sponsor will also make a big difference and give you the support needed to launch new programs. 

3. Yes, you need the business case, but make sure it is unique to your company

There are good resources to make the business case for sustainability (for example, this Reconsidered resource is full of good proof points). However, it is even more impactful if you go beyond generic stats and dive deeper into what this looks like for your business specifically. Questions that can help push your company’s ambition around ESG or climate commitments include (from the perspective of a B2B company): 

  • Who among your investors are asking about ESG, and why? 
  • How many of your customers have set climate or DEI goals? What percentage does that equal in terms of revenue representation? 
  • How often do RFPs include sustainability related questions? 
  • How often do sustainability initiatives get asked about in the recruiting process? 

You should expect some resistance to change, so having data in your back pocket that is tied to your specific company is useful. The more you can translate this into financial terms, the better.

4. Leverage the right tools and establish efficient processes early to save time 

Creating a company's first greenhouse gas emissions footprint or an Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) report is no small feat. But there are certain things that can help you save time, especially if you don’t have a big team under you. 

In my first year, I worked on everything from developing high-level mission and strategy frameworks to drafting sustainability guidelines for company events to setting up internal processes that answer request for proposal (RFP) questions.

Leveraging the right software to help automate data collection for greenhouse gasses or ESG reporting can make things more efficient. Although having a level of human support is still valuable for internal education and building the business case. Don’t forget to also look internally to see what resources you already have. Do you have a great in-house marketing team? Writers? Project managers? Leveraging those resources when publishing your first ESG report or onboarding a new software can save you weeks. 

5. It’s OK to start small

Our first ESG report was 14 pages, definitely on the shorter side in the world of ESG reporting. We focused our report on metrics that catered towards investors, raters and rankers. Our first report included a materiality assessment, a GHG footprint for Scope 1, 2 and 3, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) data as well as Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) metrics, which is pretty ambitious for a first report. However, it is perfectly fine to keep content tighter and to start small. For example, I’ve seen many first time ESG reports only include GHG emissions for Scope 1 and 2.

Beyond length, you can also innovate with form. We decided to let a number of blog posts do the storytelling around our sustainability and ESG programs throughout the year rather than including everything in a packaged ESG report. 

6. If it’s a first, bake in extra time for feedback and collaboration

For big first projects such as ESG reports, your initial timeline will likely be too ambitious. Try to get alignment with key stakeholders early on and err on the side of overcommunicating with colleagues, leadership and the board, treating all parties as collaborators rather than approvers. It may be the first time for some of your stakeholders, too, which can require extra education and hand holding. This was an important lesson for us this year with our first ESG report. By using a highly collaborative approach, we were able to publish a stronger report and develop better relationships with key stakeholders, which we anticipate will make this process more efficient with every subsequent year.

7. You will need to be a doer and a leader 

Being a sustainability practitioner is a very varied job. If you are building from scratch, you will be working on both the strategic and the operational. In my first year, I worked on everything from developing high-level mission and strategy frameworks to drafting sustainability guidelines for company events to setting up internal processes that answer request for proposal (RFP) questions about sustainability. 

8. Your ability to prioritize and delegate will be put to the test

There will be a lot of opinions on what should be done at the company. As the expert, you’ll need to prioritize and understand what to deliver first, otherwise it’s very difficult to succeed. This is where your expertise and experience comes in. Being able to prioritize what needs to be addressed immediately, versus what can be on the back-burner, as well as delegating and forming the right partnerships will be critical to delivering impact. Importantly, your colleagues should be partnering with you on sustainability priorities even if they don’t have sustainability in their titles.

It can be a lonely job in the beginning. I have relied a lot on my external peer network. Cultivating a sustainability practitioner network that you can discuss with, seek advice from, or simply validate your solutions, can be very powerful in keeping you going. Many of us are working on similar issues and are likely facing the same challenges as you are so these conversations will also save you time. Pay it forward when you can!

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