Are Chief Sustainability Officers on their way out?

Thanks to my Commscrum chum, Kevin Keohane, for pointing me in the direction of an interesting article from Environmental Leader suggesting that, having risen in prominence since 2004, the position of Chief Sustainability Officer seems to be on the wane.

The reason? According to an Accenture white paper it’s because the position risks signaling that sustainability, as Douglas Adams would describe it, is an ‘SEP’ (‘Somebody Else’s Problem’!) – a barrier to its acceptance as part and parcel of the way you do business.

Having tweeted words to the effect of the following not that long ago, you’d probably expect me to be supportive of such a trend:

Q: How do you know when sustainability is fully embedded in organisational culture? A: When the need for a standalone CSR department disappears.

In theory maybe.

But – and it’s a 30-foot high BUT in big, flashing neon letters – how many organisations can genuinely claim to be that far advanced in their sustainability journey? And if any company does try to make such a claim, how seriously should we take it? Might it not be yet another cynical marketing ploy – the next generation of greenwash?

Bear in mind, for example, an email I received from the late, great Ray Anderson – chairman and founder of Interface – when he offered feedback on my book back in the summer of 2009.

“I’d go so far as to say that there is not one single sustainable company on the planet, and possibly not even one truly sustainable product – yet. What you have among the leaders (like Interface) is companies that are a little less unsustainable (less bad) day-by-day, and products that are approaching sustainable asymptotically. The really committed companies focus on how far they have yet to go to reach sustainability.”

Wise words from a guy whose beloved company, by this time, was already well into its second decade of Mission Zero – its Big Hairy Audacious Goal to totally eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020. And, if Interface hasn’t got there yet, then I’m damn sure there can’t be many others that have.

The fact of the matter is that this nirvana is still light years away for most companies. Sure, the risks that Accenture point to are real, but so are the risks that come from a lack of co-ordinated effort. If there’s no Chief Sustainability Officer, then who’s conducting the orchestra? Who’s making sure that the strings, brass, woodwind and percussion sections are all playing from the same sheet music?

As is so often the case these days, I find myself wondering why something is being presented to me as an ‘either/or’ scenario when there appears to be a perfectly logical ‘both and’ synthesis.

Why is it an all or nothing choice between ‘centralised’ and ‘decentralised’ – the CSO model on the one hand, and responsibility delegated across top leadership on the other – when it’s perfectly possible (and no doubt superior for most organisations) to adopt a hybrid of the two?

Take M&S’ governance model for sustainability, which does precisely that. The names on the chart below may be slightly out of date, but don’t let that distract you. The point is that you have the best of both worlds here.

Want to underpin the importance of viewing sustainability as everyone’s responsibility in the organisation? Triple check!

  1. The clue’s in the name of the cross-functional committee that owns the agenda and oversees performance (chaired, you’ll note, by the Big Man himself);
  2. You’ll find it in the make-up of that committee, drawn from all four corners of M&S’ business, and the delegation of key sustainability objectives to nominated directors
  3. And it’s also there in the existence of a network of Plan A champions throughout the organisation’s stores and head office, helping to contextualise and inform corporate level strategy from the perspective of individual departments/functions

And the meat in the middle of this sandwich? The CSO, co-ordinating strategy development, implementation and reporting. Now tell me, what’s wrong with that?

What's wrong with a hybrid model like M&S?

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