Saturday, 9 April 2011

Selling sustainability to the c-suite

Sustainability needs to be led from the top. That’s not rocket science. It’s a simple fact of corporate life. Whatever the policy area, if it doesn’t have a green light from the board, it ain’t gonna happen. Get the go-ahead, however, and once closed doors magically start opening. Look at the likes of Unilever, Kingfisher, Swiss Re, Pansonic, Patagonia – all are sustainability leaders, all have vocal, pro-sustainability CEOs.

But what if you find yourself on the other side of the fence? What if your board thinks an annual Charity Day and a tree planting outing is enough to tick the sustainability box? Let’s face it, despite what CEOs might say (93% claim to think sustainability will be “critical” to their future business success, according to a recent-ish UN study), board ambivalence is frequently the norm.

Some business leaders just don’t buy it. Ryan Air’s Michael O’Leary famously referred to man-made global warming as ‘horseshit’. But for most, it's more likely that they just don’t get it. Sustainability sounds fluffy and nice, but irrelevant to their quarterly targets (and annual bonuses, for that matter). Which is why Ethical Corporation columnist Mallen Baker advises would-be sustainability advocates to ensure their business case is absolutely watertight. Company leaders won’t abide wooly thinking. That’s what makes them company leaders. So “Drill and drill” until you have the “hard proof you need”, Baker quotes one leading sustainability practitioner as saying.

Other tips include finding some quick wins that prove sustainability can tangibly impact the business bottom line. Benchmark too. Senior executives hate to think the competition is out ahead. And go public. Chief executives typically have short shelf lives. It’s much harder for a new appointee to backtrack if the world has already been told about your sustainability commitments.

Selling sustainability to the C-Suite is not always easy. But there are harder tasks out there. None more so than trying to implement sustainability without boardroom backing.

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