Erin Lyon, Executive Director, CSR Asia, argues that it is time for an honest and open dialogue about why the sustainability profession is failing to effect real change in business practices.

The sustainability profession is arguably nascent. In the relatively short time where sustainability managers have been in place, companies have made improvements to their sustainability performance, but the numbers are still small and when compared to other business support functions like law, accounting and human resources for example, limited support exists for those working in the profession.

There is no standard job description for a sustainability professional and often a limited understanding within a company of what the sustainability manager should do. A sustainability manager should be in position to guide the company through the business sustainability strategy, engaging with all departments to ensure strategy is implemented company wide. There has to be senior level engagement to ensure that the work can be conducted in a meaningful way that has an impact. The sad reality is that often many sustainability managers never get a look in with the CEO and when they do it is a chance meeting where they are quickly dismissed.

It is perhaps the combination of those two factors that has lead to the reality of a profession that is failing. If anything the existence of sustainability managers is enabling business to practice what is effectively ‘business as usual, with a few tweaks here and there’.

A collective failure

There is wholesale, collective failure to make the link between successful businesses and the need to address sustainability concerns. To defend those in the profession it is important to identify the main perpetrators preventing competent people doing the job they were appointed to do.

  1. The marketing, public relations and communications departments who do not empower the company to speak openly and honestly about sustainability challenges failures, and have an unbending desire to spin all company news as positive and an inability to present data and information that is not positive. In the worse cases they take small immaterial initiatives and present them out of context as hugely exaggerated achievements.
  2. The senior management/ board of directors who don’t know what a sustainability strategy comprises of but are 100% convinced that they know what it is, without any reference to understanding the material sustainability issues for the business, current regulation, soft law or accepted best practice. In its worse form there is a stubborn refusal to think beyond philanthropy and ‘doing things from the heart’.
  3. The middle manager who has sustainability within their remit and has hired someone to work in a dedicated function on sustainability issues but does not engage, approve budget or initiatives beyond those practiced each year. Not entirely their fault as they aren’t rewarded against sustainability KPIs so they never prioritise it. Raising challenging issues is not viewed as career enhancing so these issues are often ignored.

What needs to change?

But the blame cannot be entirely outsourced. We are systematically failing to make the case for better sustainability practices, for any sustainability practices in some cases. Sophisticated sustainability experts lament that significant change still requires tipping points, scandals, disasters – usually ones that result in tangible costs as a result before practices change.

So how do we resolve the failure of the industry, which for many is a personal disappointment. What needs to change in Asia?

  • There is a need for an international, credible and independent membership body, where sustainability professionals are guided through best practice and for the industry body to lobby and educate the business community on the role of sustainability professionals. There is a need for the context of sustainability to be presented by the industry body, to provide sustainability managers with the contextual tools required by industry so that business can understand the need for sustainability practices.
  • External stakeholders who have a vested interest in the company improving sustainability practices need to actively engage with companies at both industry and individual level. They need to be transparent and clear when these engagements are happening. Shareholders, insurance providers and those financing company activities need to make clear what the environment, social and governance standards are, publicly.
  • Government needs to step up the discourse and legislation with respect to the role of business in society. Growth in Asia is immense and sustainable business practices are a must to create stable and secure societies. Two obvious examples are that without an engaged business community climate change mitigation and adaptation becomes an expensive and impossible task, and poverty alleviation is insurmountable. Government requires industry to engage beyond the provision of philanthropy taxes and disclosure requirements.
  • Business leaders need to step up and speak out. There is a vacuum of business leaders talking about sustainability issues in Asia. The silence is deafening. Some understand the need to address the issues but have not found a voice. Without open leadership and prominent business leaders repeatedly addressing sustainability issues, as future and material issues rather than as incidental ‘feel good’ practices then nothing will change.
  • We have to recognise the limited success to date and have a rethink of approaches.
  • There must be celebration and transparent disclosure of changing business practices to highlight a ‘new business as usual’, there must be less focus and trumpeting of the ‘triumphs’ of traditional business as usual.

We need to have a dialogue about why the sustainability profession is failing to create wholesale change in business practices, why senior business and government leaders are not engaging business with sustainability issues. Without an honest reflection or an assessment of performance to date, we run the risk of the profession condoning business as usual with a few tweaks.

Erin Lyon

Executive Director, CSR Asia

Copyright: CSR Asia. This article
is reprinted from the CSR Asia website (www.csr-asia.com). Reprinted with kind permission
of CSR Asia. The author can be contacted at: elyon@csr-asia.com.

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