This month it was no different. Their question was: Should Sustainability Have a Seat in the C-Suite? My gut reaction is "Well, yeah, how else are they going to be, and be seen to be serious about this?" But a close reading of the case, a mythical computer and electronics company called Narinex, made me rethink my automatic response. They are losing bids, not all the time, and not all the big ones, but enough to make them look closer. And one of the key differentiators is their competitor's (in the situation highlighted) sustainability record. At least, it seems to be their record.
Closer reading shows that it is not the sustainability record, but in part the presentation of that record through the appointed CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) at one of their competitors.
I won't rehash the case here, you can read it at the link above. But I do want to mention two of the comments submitted by readers.
Elaine Cohen, as usual, is clear in her argument - "I believe the question at this point is not whether to hire a CSO but what is the sustainability reality for the Narinex company. The focus on sustainability is not going away, and is now a minimum expectation of businesses." She then goes on to recommend a Sustainability Mapping Study, with result provided to leadership for decision making.
She ends by saying "Sooner or later, in my experience, if a company is serious about sustainability, a CSO is a necessary asset. However, in the first stages, moving forward step by step may require broader expertise that one CSO can deliver and it might be better to establish some initial good practice through engaging the management team in their own functional areas, but only if there is someone in the business who is prepared to champion this as a short-medium term assignment."
The other comment that I really liked was from Erik Thomsen, who approached the problem from a slightly different point of view. Erik focuses on the availability of information for clear future decision making. He says "This is because the financial metrics traditionally used in the C-Suite are inherently backward looking and fail to capture critical environmental and social factors that are the drivers of medium to long-term financial performance. "
He's right. The information provided, and modeling performed remains based on well worn paradigms, one of which is that a zero price input today will remain a zero price input in the future. The pricing of externalities, if not in fact then certainly in projections, is critical to corporate success.
While I favour hiring a CSO, Erik has a different view: "What’s more, hiring a Chief Sustainability Officer implies that the rest of the C-Suite is too busy to be concerned with sustainability. This would implicitly de-position sustainability, putting it into a box other members of the C-Suite don’t have to think about."
He finished by saying "Finally, addressing the VP of Sales’ concerns -- who is going to generate more buzz, a Chief Sustainability Officer talking about issues that could be handled by someone in marketing and communications? Or the CFO, COO and CEO talking about the strategic business decisions that will ensure the company’s future profitability in an environmentally and socially sustainable way?"
Both Erik and Elaine are right, even through their suggestions in the end are different, I think they are both right. I think they should hire a CSO. Yet Erik makes the point well, who better than the entire leadership team to make the point that sustainability has become part of the DNA of the company?
It will be interesting to see how this evolves.
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