At the rockface: sustainability at the top

12th November 2013


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Four senior sustainability professionals tell Lucie Ponting about leading their organisation's environmental efforts

Ten years ago, if you looked for a global organisation employing either a head of sustainability or a chief sustainability officer you would have been hard pressed to find one. The environment profession itself was in its infancy. Thankfully, things have moved on. Now you would probably find it difficult to identify a large or influential multinational organisation without a senior sustainability professional overseeing its operations.

This month, the environmentalist profiles four sustainability leaders working for companies in Australia, Denmark, the UK and the US. The interviewees, who work in sectors ranging from healthcare and property to retailing, discuss their roles, their backgrounds and the challenges they face, and make some predictions for the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each practitioner took a different route into the profession. Susanne Stormer at Danish healthcare firm Novo Nordisk calls herself an accidental environmentalist, while Mark Newton at US shoe company Timberland says: “What we have most in common is that we came at it from different directions; there was really no formal training for any of us.”

Other recurring themes in each of the interviews include the sheer volume and breadth of the issues sustainability professionals have to deal with, the rapidly evolving nature of these issues, and the crucial need to communicate with, and work in partnership with, stakeholders, both internally and externally. The interviewees also all agree that their job, while stimulating and fulfilling, is not for the faint-hearted.

Mike Barry

director of Plan A at Marks & Spencer

Barry is responsible for Marks & Spencer’s high profile sustainability programme, Plan A, which aims to help M&S become the world’s most sustainable major retailer. He reports directly to the retail company’s chief executive Marc Bolland.

Barry has three overarching roles. First, he drives overall direction and strategy by ensuring sustainability is integrated with the commercial side of the business. “As we expand internationally and online, it’s essential that Plan A is part of that,” he says. “At M&S, we’ve got a very clear brand position around quality, and it can’t be a quality suit if it’s made by a child or a quality ready meal if it’s full of dodgy chemicals.”

The second element of his job is to embed sustainability across the retailer’s global operations, so that leadership teams have the skills and knowledge to implement Plan A. And the third strand requires Barry to engage with stakeholders, so that M&S is “talking to the right scientists, pressure groups and policymakers” about the future.

“To do this job well, first and foremost, you need to be a good people person; you’ve got to be able to sell what is still a relatively new concept to colleagues who run the business,” Barry believes. “You also need to understand how the business ticks commercially.”

Baseline knowledge of sustainability is also crucial, which is where Barry’s background in chemistry is useful. “But you’ve got to know about a multiplicity of issues,” he stresses. “At M&S, we’re dealing with everything from deforestation and climate change to fish sourcing, salt in food and labour standards in Bangladesh. My job, if not to know all the answers, is at least to know someone who does.”

Other core skills for the job are the ability to build networks and partnerships with others and to be innovative. “Finally,” says Barry, “you’ve got to be quite tough. Lots of doors will get slammed in your face, but you’ve got to keep coming back.”

Model future

Barry sees creating a self-motivating business case as a key challenge for any sustainability professional. “The signals telling us to become sustainable are quite weak. If you look at government, there is not much policy or legislation; investors are not particularly asking for it; and, while consumers do care that they shop with an ethical business, they don’t want to know the detail of it,” he suggests.

The sheer number of issues confronting an organisation like M&S is another challenge. “M&S has 180 points in Plan A, because there are 180 issues to deal with,” Barry says. With 2.9 billion individual items, from thousands of factories, farms and raw materials sources, sold each year through multiple shops and websites, sustainability is “a big logistical task”, he says.

On the issue of whether sustainability is now higher up the board agenda than 10 years ago, Barry says: “Back then, businesses would have denied there was a need to change. Now, many recognise that a change is required. The big conundrum in 2013 is how you actually do that; no one is yet clear what the sustainable business model of the future looks like. We are all feeling our way a bit.” This is one of the reasons why Plan A is a series of evolving five-year plans.

Across its global operations, M&S has taken steps to improve the sustainability of products in the supply chain and these are automatically delivered in the same way, whether it’s in the UK, China or Russia. “M&S sells the same coat from a good, ethical UK factory making good, ethical wool anywhere in world,” explains Barry.

What varies is how people are employed, how stores are run and how the company interacts with organisations. In China, for example, people are more concerned about environmental issues, as they suffer the effects of smogs and water pollution. By contrast, the focus in the Middle East is more on social issues, families and community wellbeing.

Mark Newton

vice president, corporate social responsibility at Timberland

“Timberland has a very broad definition of sustainability and corporate social responsibility,” explains Newton, who joined the US-based footwear company in 2011. “The way we look at it is probably broader in context than many companies do – we include environment and social responsibility, as well as community engagement.”

In terms of environmental performance, Timberland is looking at product attributes from a lifecycle and impact standpoint, including the energy efficiency of the manufacturing process, the embedded energy associated with materials used, and the impacts from the extended supply chain, distribution and logistics.

Newton’s team covers Timberland-owned and operated operations, as well as the energy, fuel consumption and utility impacts associated with its logistics providers and supply chain. On the social side, his team primarily focuses on ethical sourcing and creating sustainable livelihoods in the regions in which it is manufacturing. “Community engagement is really what Timberland all about,” he stresses. The company recently celebrated 20 years of its “path of service programme”, a global initiative whereby each employee can work for 40 hours a year for an organisation they choose to support. “It’s about blurring the line between who we are as people and what we do at work,” he says.

Newton comes from an engineering background. “My story is quite similar to others,” he says. “Those of us leading CSR and sustainability in big organisations all come at it from different directions.”

With a doctorate in physical chemistry, he joined Motorola 20 years ago to develop new materials. “We had a customer grinding up our products and sending back nasty notes saying: ‘Did you know your walkie-talkies contain these restricted substances?’ I was assigned to figure out why we were using these substances. Once we did, we found that the buyers had options; they just hadn’t been asked the question before.”

After Motorola, Newton worked at Apple and then at Dell, before joining Timberland. Probably the thing that inspires him most is his work in the supply chain, interacting with workers in the factories, understanding their needs and challenging how Timberland can impact their lives through the choices it makes.

Timberland’s sustainable living environments programme, called “beyond the factory walls”, looks at the individual needs of different communities. In India, for example, the need could be clean drinking water. By partnering with other organisations, Timberland provides basic community services, which help employees to be more productive.

Beyond reputation

Newton agrees with M&S’s Mike Barry that sustainability now has a higher profile at board level. More significant, however, is how much more integrated sustainability has become in companies. Businesses are starting to think beyond just reputation management and compliance, which is where it started, Newton says. “The reason for this,” he argues, “is that the business case is proving itself.

“Obviously, you have to focus on reputation and compliance as a firm foundation, but don’t stop there. There is so much equity and value that can be built on top of that, when you start thinking about the business sense of sustainability, which is: ‘How are we going to be profitable 50 or 100 years from now?’”

As a global company, Newton is clear that Timberland cannot “show up one way in one region and not in another region”. Consistency is vitally important. “You can’t say: ‘Well, the bar is set lower in this region, so we’ll calibrate our efforts accordingly,’” he stresses.

Newton recognises, however, that different things are important to different people, so he does not support a “one-size-fits-all” communication method. In some regions, environmental responsibility might resonate more; in others, worker responsibility.

According to Newton, one of the biggest challenges in sustainability today is consumer behaviour. “Most firms will only go beyond the minimum if consumers vote with their wallets. Consumers need to reward companies that are doing the right thing and act against those that are not.” He also sees connecting with the investment community as a key challenge. “It’s about the whole concept of materiality – how do you know what to focus on and what matters? Which of the things that we can do are the most important and which, if we don’t do them, can diminish shareholder value?”

Amanda Steele

head of sustainability, the Pacific region at CBRE

A key attraction of her role at real estate services provider CBRE in Australia is the multifaceted nature of the issues Steele deals with. “What I’ve always loved about sustainability is that it changes all the time. It’s about complex problems and systemic issues – challenges that you can really get your teeth into.”

As head of sustainability for the Pacific region, there are two main aspects to her job: the internal side, which involves helping the firm’s offices and staff understand sustainability in its premises and activities; and the external side, where CBRE offers strategic direction to clients to help them deliver sustainable outcomes – for example, by improving energy efficiency.

Her degree in international politics might seem like an unusual starting point, but it was a good fit with her future career. “Most of my degree was around emerging economies that had environmental and community development challenges,” she says. “I was looking at those large systemic and multifaceted problems, which are what sustainability is all about.”

She also worked at The Body Shop while studying. “I was lucky enough to work with [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick in Australia,” she explains. “Roddick was a great leader in sustainability – way ahead of her time with her passion for good supply-chain management, recycling and giving back to the community. What Roddick was doing back then, we’re still looking for leaders in other industries to take up.”

After university, Steele worked in the not-for-profit sector for Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World. “In Australia, a lot of the work was around things like removing litter from parks; in Sierra Leone, it was removing dead bodies from the marketplace, so that kids had somewhere to play.” This helped bring the important aspects of sustainability into stark relief. “I could see what a fundamental difference they made to people’s lives,” she says.

All consuming

People often assume the work Steele does is the “nice” side of business or the easy side, but this is a fallacy she says. “While it is always fascinating and stimulating, it can also be all consuming and sometimes quite depressing in terms of the scope and scale of the problems,” she explains. “It’s not an easy career; you’ll take lots of flak from lots of different areas.”

Although sustainability is generally higher on the business agenda than when Steele started out, she thinks its position still depends on the industry. “I’d like to say all businesses see it as absolutely essential to the way they run their operations, but that’s not the case.”

She argues that many of those industries at the forefront of sustainability – such as the mining, financial services, pharmaceuticals and property sectors – are in that position because they did a bad job previously, and then had to act, whether through enlightened self-interest or because stakeholders were digging them in the ribs. “In Australia, we haven’t seen the push in manufacturing that’s happened in Europe and possibly America. And that’s the next big area here where change is looming, particularly around good supply-chain management.”

A perennial challenge for the profession, according to Steele, is what happens when economic times get tough. “But we are getting savvier – looking at financial drivers, such as return-on-investment yields, and the role we play, as well as things like social return-on-investment and shared-value metrics.”

In Australia, environmental challenges, particularly those from climate change, are acute. “We’re now in an era where we’re looking to adapt to the changes we haven’t stopped,” Steele says. Socially, while Australia is known as the “lucky country”, there are still pockets of real disadvantage, she adds. “And the marginalisation of indigenous Australians is another issue that lots of organisations still struggle with.”

She would like to see the country raise its game in certain areas. “When colleagues say how easy solar is to get up and running on a commercial scale in Germany, I see how backward we are here in Australia,” she explains. “We haven’t had the government incentives, yet we are one of the sunniest countries in the world.”

Susan Stormer

vice president, corporate sustainability at Novo Nordisk

Stormer heads up the corporate sustainability team at Danish-based healthcare firm Novo Nordisk. “We’ve built our remit around the triple bottom line; it’s about balancing considerations for the environment, people and communities, and what’s good for the business as well,” she explains.

Alongside ensuring Novo Nordisk lives up to its commitments in the UN Global Compact, for example, as well as other voluntary agreements, she and her team “drive, align, support and challenge” the way the company works through the various dimensions of the sustainability agenda. “For some of these agendas – environment and climate action – we have the ultimate responsibility,” she explains.

In other areas, responsibility lies in other functions. Examples include responsible sourcing, which is now fully embedded with the purchasing organisation, and business ethics, which sits with assurance and internal audits. Both began as programmes that Stormer and her team developed in response to emerging trends, and which were handed over to other functions in the business as they matured. In such circumstances, the ongoing task for Stormer is to challenge the functions to ensure they have the right targets and processes in place, and to make sure they are aware of new developments.

Her team puts together Novo Nordisk’s integrated annual report and looks after the company’s “blueprint for change” programme, which measures the link between the triple bottom line and the value the firm helps to create for both society and the company.

Stormer describes herself as “an environmentalist by accident”. After studying English language and literature, and then a course on East Asia, she started work as a communications adviser. From first explaining how to deal with environmental problems, she moved on to the social and economic dimensions of sustainability. She describes that role as a “go-between or convenor” for different types of experts and interests, which stood her in good stead for her role at Novo Nordisk.

Be a chameleon

Like the other sustainability leaders we spoke to, Stormer believes that sustainability is now higher on the board agenda than ever before, identifying an event 10 years ago when Novo Nordisk’s chief financial officer (CFO) gave a speech at a conference for economists in London as a breakthrough moment. “The title of the speech was: ‘Why sustainability has moved up the board agenda’,” she says. “There was a ‘wow’ moment in the room. People said: ‘This is their CFO who is talking about this, so they must mean business!’”

She sees both opportunities and risks for sustainability professionals in the future. “We have succeeded in building a very strong profession, which is increasing in numbers and rising up organisations,” Stormer says. But she is slightly concerned that the profession “could become a barrier to own success”, perhaps by becoming a bit too self-sufficient. “We mustn’t look at the world too much through our own lens,” Stormer emphasises. “If we, as sustainability professionals, really want to gain influence, we have to stand strong on our own professionalism, but at same time be a bit chameleon-like and speak many languages with many different people.”

Turning to the challenges facing the profession, Stormer says: “We always hear that we need to make the business case, and part of what we do is to develop some new methods to describe that. But we haven’t really done that yet – come up with a way of bringing in other currencies or ways of valuing what we do.”

She would like to see the profession help to qualify conversations about what is valuable to us as human beings and as inhabitants of the planet. “We need to accept that money matters and we have to make the financial argument, but we also need to feed the conversation about what else matters.”

One of the interesting current discussions in Denmark, she notes, is the notion of green growth and competitiveness. “In Denmark, we have come a long way, perhaps even overestimating what we could do; certainly we had high hopes of the COP15 [the 2009 United Nations climate change conference] in Copenhagen, yet that failed,” Stormer says.

She believes, however, that the failures in Copenhagen were less to do with businesses, and more to do with governments. Overall, she feels that the Danish government has set a good example with its ambitious carbon reduction strategy, and in creating and enabling a greener, healthier lifestyle.


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