How to get boards of directors to make sustainability systemic

All too often, boards of directors will see sustainability as a side program, not deserving of a dominant role in the boardroom. If sustainability is to be a central topic of a board meeting, it probably won't look like what CSRs and environmentalists might expect.

At least, that's what Dianne Dillon-Ridgley said at GreenBiz Forum 2015 in Phoenix, Ariz., in an interview with Ceres president Mindy Lubber.

"I think ultimately, sustainability as word will fall away," Dillon-Ridgley said. "It is a proxy word, and I think one of the ways in which to engage the board members and financial side of a company and its operations is to use 'sustainability' as a proxy for risk."

Dillon-Ridgley is a member of Interface's board of directors, and explained to the GreenBiz Forum audience how to get boards to understand sustainability — or lack thereof — for what it is: risk.

"Those things that are the greatest risk for many companies right now are in fact those things that are the most relevant and germane to what we, who have focused on sustainability for so long, have been talking about," she said. 

Dillon-Ridgley also said that any well functioning board should comprise members willing to look at all risks, including those tied to sustainability. 

Dillon-Ridgley has sat on boards for several other boards besides Interface, and that a board of "yes men" sends her running for the hills.

"One of the things that I think is most important is to have people on the board who have the courage to be willing to ask the question," she said. "No one sits on a public board without understanding that you are responsible for making sure you've done your due diligence to make sure the company isn't exposed to extra risk."

As for making sure that company leadership complies, Dillon-Ridgley suggested tying compensation to sustainability goals.

"Nothing changes anyone's attention more than changing their pay structure," she said.