Skip to main content


Sustainability, change leadership and collaboration: From the why to the how

Looking to understand the growing pains on the path to corporate change.

This article kicks off a new series by BSR that will explore how corporate sustainability pros can work across departments on shared goals.

BSR and others long have called for companies to stop treating sustainability as a niche area, as philanthropy or as an incremental "nice to have." Ultimately, we agree that we need to move beyond debates over whether sustainability teams should be kept separate from or integrated into the core business. It’s our perspective that any business that uses strategic foresight quickly will understand that sustainable business is just good business and see that a successful future involves sustainability considerations across its planning and operations.

But moving from ambition to adoption is far harder than it looks, and we see a need for more concrete guidance on how to do this.

In 2017, BSR and GlobeScan conducted a survey of 250 companies on the state of sustainable business, and we complemented this with 50 detailed interviews with sustainability leaders to understand the state of play on ethical, social and environmental issues in their organizations. It’s worth noting that these are individuals within companies that are already committed to sustainability, and who might be expected to be ahead of the curve on adoption and innovation.

Our findings were striking. Sustainability was seen as a top priority for CEOs — yet sustainability teams frequently feel isolated and lacking in both resources and power. Customers, investors, employees and the government were agreed to be critical stakeholders, but less than 30 percent of our survey respondents saw a need to work closely with relevant functions, such as strategy, product development, risk or investor relations. Even more stunning, less than 10 percent of respondents saw the relevance of working with their legal or finance teams.

Sustainability was seen as a top priority for CEOs — yet sustainability teams frequently feel isolated and lacking in both resources and power.
There was also a lack of consistency across industries. A consumer products company is likely to prioritize marketing and supply chain expertise, whereas an infrastructure or extractives company might view sustainability through the lens of risk management and social performance. In short, there is no consistent remit or structure for a sustainability team and no commonly agreed set of competencies and skills.

For this to change, business leaders and sustainability experts urgently need to move beyond a "whatever works" mindset and adopt a more structured approach to how responsible business fits into today’s organizations. As one interviewee told us, "Most big businesses have been working on sustainability with reasonable success for the last 10 to 15 years, but we have been picking the low-hanging fruit. The next phase will be much more difficult. It is about what you buy and what you sell; it goes into the heart of your commercial operations and investment decisions."

The sustainability leaders we spoke to agreed that this next stage of adoption will be critical for the future of their businesses, society and the planet. (You can read more about what this next stage looks like in our new report, Redefining Sustainable Business: Management for a Rapidly Changing World.) Successful sustainability leaders know that the keys to successful programs are senior support, internal influence and personal credibility.

Yet when we asked what skills are most necessary for their roles, we were surprised just how many people came back with the same simple answer: change management. As one leader observed, "Most of the sustainability team’s job is more about organizational change than about subject matter expertise. To engage the executive committee, we tailor language and shape messages for each. I also use external voices and pressures to move lines."

This is about much more than making a successful business case for sustainability.
Understanding and driving change, preparing for an uncertain future and building coalitions are key competencies that increasingly will be required of sustainability practitioners. Moreover, their teams need to be smart and focused about working with other important functions in the organization to pursue transformational change.

This is about much more than making a successful business case for sustainability. It means gaining a deeper understanding of both the synergies and tensions between sustainability teams and other important functions, such as legal, risk, procurement, human resources and government affairs, and it means making a successful case for collaboration that drives mutual benefit.

Our new blog series aims to help GreenBiz readers do just that. We have drawn on our research and consulting experience to produce this upcoming series on how to work with other departments in your organization on sustainability. Over the coming weeks, we will provide perspectives on how to collaborate with a range of functions, based on real-life experience. Our aim is to be practical, share examples, highlight pain points and support the growth and traction of sustainability within companies.

We look forward to your feedback and to starting this important conversation. Check back next week for our first piece on how to work with your colleagues.

More on this topic