Moving from sustainability compliance to impact

OPINION PIECE

Moving from sustainability compliance to impact

ESG Africa Conference and the National Business Initiative (NBI) partnered to hold the inaugural Chief Sustainability Forum in late April 2024 hosted by Alexforbes.  “The forum is aimed at helping CSOs learn from each other on issues of common interest in order to move the ESG and Sustainability agenda forward” says NBI Chief Executive Shameela Soobramoney.  The topic of discussion was how to move organisations from a compliance mindset towards one where there is shared value, impact and transformative sustainability programmes.  “This means sustainability and/or ESG is integrated into company operations, strategy and risk processes and most importantly, thinking” said Wendy Poulton Director at ESG Africa Conference.  The discussion centered around consideration of some of the challenges to making this shift, as well as potential solutions. 

The first issue to emerge was that of the complexity of the issues linked with the very broad scope of sustainability. It was articulated that this can be overwhelming when the CSO has to be all things to all people and just cannot deal with all the issues.  Being very deliberate around materiality, where in the value chain to focus and ensuring that accountability lies with the responsible person were identified as some opportunities to focus on the most impactful issues. 

This is obviously dependent on the level of maturity of sustainability in the organisation.  Organisations in the early stages of integration of sustainability may struggle with defining a concrete scope.  As they unpack the risks and opportunities as well as understand where in the organisation these lie, what stakeholder expectations are and start measuring performance and impact, more clarity will emerge. 

The challenge is to ultimately scale up effort so that all material aspects are covered, organisation wide.  This may require resources for which there is competition, especially if they are short term priorities.  The CSOs stated that oftentimes longer term, more transformational initiatives will be sidelined in favour of shorter-term activities where immediate impact can be seen.  The CSO’s lived experience of some ways to overcome this type of challenge included:

  • Collaboration within and outside the organisation and identifying appropriate leverage points. This requires intensive engagement, understanding of needs and barriers and raising awareness at all levels in the organisation.
  • Not trying to have all the answers but rather really listening, mentoring and finding common ground to add value to the line manager, as well as contribute towards the corporate goals.
  • Incorporate harder measures such as inclusion of sustainability targets in incentive schemes, data driven, stretch targets and KPIs and company policy changes

Behaviour and decision-making processes were identified as critical areas of leverage to address at all levels in an organisation.  It was felt that change must be both bottom up and top down to be successful.  Particularly at senior leadership level, the issue of short termism vs the risk of doing nothing on longer term issues (possibly at greater risk) was found to be critical and it was felt it must be surfaced to ensure a balanced and robust strategy.  If this does not happen, then trade-offs which are often not explicitly verbalized, but exist none the less, are not addressed.

Decision makers need to be able to make sense of the complexity for themselves and others and deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.  They also need to be humble, ask for diverse views and be willing to pivot and shift as the world shifts.  Having the risk appetite to explore new ways of doing things in order to be able to identify and explore opportunities is a key matter.  CSOs stated that they have to walk the wobbly tightrope between helping move the organisation forward, influence its direction together with others and making sure it is ready for change.  Having leadership buy-in makes this job easier and quicker. 

All of this culminates in the skills and competencies of all players in this complex ecosystem.  The CSO’s identified that it is critical to ensure that not just skills like problem solving, critical thinking and systems analysis are in place, but also interpersonal skills and advocacy etc.  Skills development for sustainability and ESG is also company wide as today the financial, procurement, HR and operations staff all need some form of awareness and knowledge. 

The group concluded by commenting that this is not an easy path and that there is a lot more to discuss and share.  Lee Swan from Alexforbes the host of the event concluded that she is “learning every day and has adapted and grown in ways she could never have imagined”.  Lee epitomises the mindset of a successful CSO, i.e. being willing to embrace the idea that this is a lifelong learning journey and being humble enough to accept that means not always knowing the answer but being willing to create it with others.  Supporting our mental and physical health and accepting the journey but celebrating the wins is therefore key.

For more information, please contact Wendy Poulton Director at ESG Africa Conference at wendy@esgafricaconference.com or Gillian Hutchings, Head Membership and Communications at NBI at gillianh@nbi.org.za