There seems to be much hand-wringing amongst sustainability professionals about where the function of ‘sustainability’ should sit within organisations. The angst stems from the relatively nomadic existence of the role and the difficulty we have in pinning it down to a single traditional location inside businesses. Sometimes we find it harboured by the Corporate Affairs team; at others it sits somewhat marooned under the FD; often it has evolved out of the old Health & Safety function and it therefore languishes under the auspices of Facilities.
It occurred to me the other day when I was trying to pigeon-hole a typical ‘sustainability services purchaser’ for the benefit of a colleague, how ludicrous it is that something as fundamental as ‘the survival of a business’ can be confined to a single department or team at all.
It is a bit like setting up a ‘Profitability Department’ as a silo within the walls of a company. No Board would surely consider sticking a load of people in a team and focusing them solely on how to make the company profitable. Profitability must be threaded throughout the fabric of a business; for a business to be successful, all key departments must understand how to run profitably and how they can contribute to and support to the overall profitability of that company.
Likewise, a business cannot become truly ‘sustainable’ – by which I mean operating today in a manner which will protect its success in the future – unless each and every department and manager is thinking about how she can align with a sustainable business strategy.
Of course, there are certain services or tasks that sustainability professionals provide – such as creating company-wide policies, setting targets for the improvement of performance, and reporting on those, which can and should be carried out by sustainability professionals. But the fundamental tenets of the function are as integral to a well-run, future-proof business as is a healthy bottom line.
Which is why the most progressive businesses have all but abandoned the sustainability team and dispersed responsibilities for areas such as responsible supply chain management, carbon management and employee engagement throughout the organisation. The more disseminated and culturally pervasive sustainability can become, the more successful the organisation will be in the long term.
As long as sustainability remains an adjunct to the business, dictating policies and keeping score from the sidelines, it will remain difficult for that organisation to really benefit from the value sustainability has to offer. Which is why I think I welcome the future death of the Sustainability Department.