Talent Show

A decade of covering the intersection of sustainability, careers and human resources

As 2019 drew to a close, I was doing what a lot of us do at the end of the year — cleaning out my office and putting things into piles for filing and recycling. But last year was different, as this marked the end of the decade.

I found myself flipping through print copies of sustainability reports from 20 years ago and reminiscing over BSR and Net Impact (then called Students for Responsible Business) conference brochures from as far back as 1998.

I have been working in the field for 20-plus years and writing this Talent Show column for GreenBiz about the people side of the sustainability profession for 10 years. During that time, the field has grown and professionalized. It’s more diverse, both in terms of the people behind the initiatives and the substance of the work. And it’s moved from the fringe to the mainstream. 

All of this makes the field dynamic and challenging. But when it comes to the sustainability profession, what have been the biggest changes over the past decade? I read through some of my early Talent Show articles to find out.

A wider and deeper profession

Ten years ago, in my very first Talent Show article, "In Search of the Elusive Chief Sustainability Officer," I wondered: Where were all the CSOs? Why was it so unusual for big companies to have a sustainability professional in the C-suite? Today, the CSO function is much more common: Among U.S. publicly traded companies, the number of CSOs grew by more than 65 percent between 2011 and 2018.

My first Talent Show article hinted at the state of play in corporate sustainability in the early aughts: CSOs were elusive because the profession wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. I remember, years ago, a reporter calling to get my comments on the emergence of the CSO title. I told her that in my years as a recruiter, I had yet to meet one. She dropped her story, but I did some research and, after looking at 10-Ks and a few LinkedIn networks, I found less than a dozen people with the CSO title. Most of those leaders had other responsibilities as well.

Today, there are not only more sustainability professionals at the top, there are more sustainability people everywhere. Sustainability has broken through the silo of the "CSR department." By 2018, I wrote about how, as the field has matured, sustainability careers have grown in breadth and depth, with opportunities for executives and leaders as well as specialists and independent contributors. This wider and deeper profession has created powerful opportunities for greater impact. 

Catalysts for change: from activists to employees to investors

It’s clear the field has professionalized. But what’s behind that trend? I believe it’s who’s carrying the mantle of change. In the early part of this century, activists such as Greenpeace were still hanging off the sides of bridges protesting climate destruction during global economic meetings. By the end of the decade, the catalysts for change had moved from bridges to corporate boardrooms — from the fringe to the mainstream.

In 2013, I wrote about former Greenpeace leaders who had taken jobs within the corporate sector to push for change from the inside. (More recently, I wrote about the reverse move, with a profile of someone going from big business to big NGO.) Around the same time, I started to wonder about how employee activism was affecting corporate responsibility.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was strong, and I wrote about how companies could (and should) pay attention to the issues their employees care about most. By the end of 2019, employee activism had become a strong catalyst for change within companies on issues ranging from climate action to gun control to immigration to equality. One 2019 study found that 40 percent of American workers call themselves social activists. 

The other new driver of change has been the mainstream investment community. In 2018, I wrote about how BlackRock CEO Larry Fink was putting sustainability on the CEO agenda. In 2019, I wrote about why investor influence has become one of the top three drivers of corporate sustainability efforts.

The upshot? With activists, employees and investors holding companies to account, sustainability is a core part of business.

Reflecting on the past 10 years, I realize that the changes in our field have not been fast. This has me wondering: Is the slow pace of change a good thing? Does it mean that new systems, behaviors and practices are more likely to stick over the long term? Or does it mean that we’re failing to take action quickly enough on the world’s most pressing problems?

I want to thank GreenBiz for the opportunity to have engaged with you over the past decade via this column and as a regular at the GreenBiz Forum.  And I looking forward to continuing to do so over the next decade.