Sense and sustainability

With a global population that reached 7 billion last year, sustainability is a buzz word that is taking centre stage not just for energy professionals but individuals from all walks of life.

'Thanks to fascinating search assignments, I have met many sustainability profiles - great people, highly skilled and motivated - who are trying to address all these challenges in their companies,’ explains AHEAD partner Muriel Malak, who heads the firm’s SD practice.
Here HEADWAY quizzes a panel of experts from four different sectors on their sustainability strategy and staffing :

Géraud Servin, Assistant Director Sustainable Development at the Copper Alliance;
Nathalie Guillaume, Senior Public Affairs & Sustainability Manager for Danone;
Benoît Simonart, Program Manager Corporate Social Responsibility with bpost;
Marion Birnstill, CSR Project Manager EMEA with the  Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Citizenship Trust.

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Muriel Malak Géraud Servin Nathalie Guillaume Benoît Simonart Marion Birnstill

What makes a successful sustainability strategy?

NG A sustainability strategy is successful when it is based on various fundamental factors. For example,
- the commitment of the whole company, and in particular its executive committee
- the integration of the economic, social and environmental responsibility in the business strategy
- a dialogue or even a partnership with external stakeholders into a long-lasting relationship with suppliers and customers

BS Yes, sustainability strategy should be part of the corporate strategy and demonstrate the engagement of the top management. It should start with the most obvious actions (generally on environmental aspects), be communicated and made visible to all stakeholders; focus on actions bringing value for the company and its stakeholders (product innovation, risk mitigation, reputation, cost savings); and stimulate behaviors and initiatives of employees.

GS SD is a simple but broad concept (a balance between the environmental, social and economic dimensions of what we do with a good measure of governance) and everyone has its own interpretation of what SD means. One success criteria is to recognize that diversity and engage all your stakeholders in the process to understand their specific needs. Ask me again in 2 years and I’ll tell you if we’ve been successful.

MB It requires the buy-in of top management. CSR should not be a separate department, but should at best be integrated in the various business operations and departments to demonstrate the integration in the company strategy.  Companies currently report on their sustainability goals and achievements at Board level and an increasing number of them make employees accountable in reaching these sustainability goals by integrating sustainability criteria in their employees’ performance review.

And who needs one?

MB Everyone needs it! From SMEs to multinationals...

BS All companies will need one sooner or later at least for image and reputation reasons, because consciousness on climate change and scarcity of resources is growing within public opinions but also because environmental regulation will become stronger and stronger.

GS The key question is why do we need SD? Because growth for the sake of growth has its limits. So everyone who’s concerned about the future well-being of their children and the planet need to think about SD. And it starts in your home by using efficient lights to save energy and taking shorter showers to save water. 

NG A company’s responsibility goes beyond its scope of activities; it is responsible for the direct and indirect jobs it generates, and for its impact on the environment. In this context, every company needs a sustainability strategy.

How is your SD strategy affected by these times of economic crisis and short term vision? Is SD still a hot priority today?

BS Sustainability programs have difficulties to come on top of the agenda in crisis period, but many low hanging fruits actions with short term ROI can contribute to the bottom line of the company without many investment or resource needs.

GS Some see it as a miracle solution to all their problems. It is not! SD is a journey, and a long and difficult one. It goes against the short term views of politicians elected for a few years and profit-makers looking for a quick ROI.

MB The crisis proves the limits of the system. We shouldn’t fix broken systems, but create new ones.  By re-inventing our business models and re-defining the role of the private sector and their impact on society. This requires indeed a very long-term view that goes beyond the current short sightedness. 

What are the special sustainability challenges in your sector?

BS In the postal sector, the main challenges are:
- to reduce the environmental impact of postal activities, mainly transport and logistics, through optimization of postmen rounds and introduction of green technologies in the fleet of vehicles, but also the energy consumption in the administrative buildings and sorting centers
- to promote paper as an efficient and sustainable media (when compared with electronic supports) ensuring sustainability of the postal activities
- to exploit the opportunity of the growth in parcels activities generated by e-commerce development
- to help customers to reduce their own CO2 impact regarding postal services
- to engage employees in adopting environmental behaviors at work and at home (30.000 fte at bpost)
- IPC (International Post Corporation) has established a scorecard for ‘Environmental management and measurement system’ within the industry. In the current ranking of 24 big postal operators around the world, bpost is very proud to have reached the second position in 2012

GS Technically copper is the best thermal and electrical conductor. It has many additional economic, social and environmental benefits like for example the fact that unlike many other raw materials, copper is 100% recyclable indefinitely, without any alteration or performance loss. We need to articulate all these aspects to demonstrate the true impact and benefits of copper to society. In brief, copper is not a “simple” raw material, it is a multi-functional metal.

MB The scope of CSR in the pharmaceutical industry is much broader than in any other, as it not only defines the way a corporation should make money but the area where this corporation should make a profit. The importance of finding a sustainable alternative to the current policies is not only to ensure a sufficient cash flow for the pharmaceutical industry to guarantee future innovation but essentially to decrease the gap between developed and developing countries as far as access to essential medicine is concerned and save lives as a consequence. Corporate social policies are interlinked to the core business of the pharmaceutical industry, challenging as a result, the nature of the firm. So far, drug donation, out-licensing and differential pricing have been the alternatives to keeping a balanced profit and to promoting brand image. However, these pricing agreements might not be sustainable in the long run as Innovation (as well as Research and Development) investment will mainly be relying on research-based pharmaceutical companies. Therefore it is crucial for the pharmaceutical industry to explore new business models and social innovation to better optimize its role in society. 

How do you address these challenges?

MB As mentioned, a specific focus is given to social innovation which can only be accomplished through strategic partnerships and capacity building (eg knowledge transfer).

GS One by one in a systematic manner. The health and environment aspects are well known (copper is safe). We also have a rather good understanding of copper’s societal benefits (e.g. safety, energy savings, antimicrobial properties) but the big gap lies in the impact of copper and its industry on our economy.

BS We have launched in 2008 a sustainability program focusing on 4 P’s (Planet, Paper, Proximity and People) with quantitative objectives, action plans and reporting processes, based on a light governance structure embedded in the organization and involving key internal players. We have also established partnerships with external organizations (like WWF) and experts in carbon management.

There has been a surge in sustainability jobs in recent years. What is your experience of this new profession and the types of jobs within it?

BS Companies need experts in environment management, in energy management and experienced senior executive able to develop and implement strategies, develop green relationships with stakeholders.

MB There is a shift in the governance of CSR department. In the past, they used to be part of the communication department. Nowadays, they are part of the public affairs or the strategy departments.

What are the trends? How is the profession evolving?

BS The good news is that sustainability is an attracting domain for the young generation and more and more high schools have included it in their programs. Depending of the importance of the company challenge, the sustainability manager is at C-level, reports to the strategy department, to the corporate communication or to the marketing. Sustainability experts in environment or in energy are more in the facility or fleet management departments.

What advice would you give to business leaders or HRDs regarding their recruitment into sustainability jobs?

NG I would recommend hiring people who are genuinely motivated by sustainability and social responsibility, able to integrate and combine different stakes such as business, social aspects and the environment, i.e. people able to manage contradictions, but also to embark and unite different departments and people around the sustainability objective. Open-mindedness and both external and internal communication skills are also key in this type of functions.

BS Identify profiles who believe in sustainability (walk the talk attitude), with creativity, power of conviction and project management skills.

GS A candidate’s degree subject is secondary. Look for a versatile candidate with different experiences in different places with different people. Have an open mind. 

MB These profiles are more and more specialized. Everyone within a company has a direct or indirect implication in the company’s CSR strategy therefore, almost every position requires its sustainability specialist: from governance, to investor relation or responsible supply chain management. There are as many sustainability jobs as roles and functions within an organization.Therefore, profiles are becoming more and more specialized per industry and per company which also means that internal promotion is sometimes favoured as it is crucial to understand the challenges and needs of a company to design and implement the sustainability strategy as well as to mobilize and engage internally to mainstream the strategy in the company’s operations.

Or to candidates considering a career or move into this relatively new profession?

GS Ask yourself why it is important for the company you want to join and why is it important to you.

BS First, learn the job and gain experience in companies where sustainability is part of the corporate strategy and with successful track records in the field. Then apply the best practices in other industries or in smaller companies starting a CSR policy. 

MB Sustainability is quite broad so I would recommend to interested candidate to narrow down their expertise to one field, one industry or one specific topic.

NG Two people have inspired my professional evolution towards sustainability : Prof. G. Pauli, and his “Blue Economy” concept, and Dr. Wayne Visser, with his CSR 2.0 concept. I warmly recommend reading their works.