Jacobine Das Gupta (DSM): “5 Strategies for Sustainability Leaders”

The best way to feel better is to make the world a better place’, states the seasoned sustainability manager Solitaire Townsend in her book ‘The Happy Hero’ (2018). Where better to do this as a sustainability manager in a respected company that is already heading in the right direction? There are several myths about managing sustainability. That’s fine, but ‘Where to start, how to prioritize, how to keep track and keep your spirits high? And… when are you actually ‘successful’?

Here are 5 strategies for sustainability leaders for you that might help you make an impact.

1) Fuel your inspiration & cultivate your ambitions

First, it is important to know what gives you the inspiration to start working as a sustainability leader, de facto a change manager, in a company. What attracts you? Is it curiosity? Interest in people? Willingness to make a ripple in the universe? All good! Why do you want to make a change -and what do you bring to the table? What makes you believe that your organization can make a change?

Perhaps you had an epiphany moment when you read a book or article, joined a presentation or a spoke with a passionate person, that triggered you to explore the role of sustainability managers in companies. For me, an eye-opener was the article ‘Just Good Business’, in The Economist (2008), when it struck me that companies can really be a force for good by putting social missions at the heart of their strategy, and work this through in all disciplines. And even more triggering, I felt I could also play a role in this, as a designer and business developer.

How can you be successful here? And when are you ‘done’? This is not an easy one. But, if you can set sufficient time apart to pause and reflect, read and learn, if you also have time for family, friends and activities outside work, if you still feel what you do is valuable and suits you – you are very lucky. You will never be ‘done’, but that does not matter.

2) Create the future we want and the company we need

In these turbulent times, more than ever ‘positive blueprints’ of an appealing future in which people thrive are very much needed. We need these positive versions of the future, that show how we will have been able to deal with today’s pressing issues and dilemmas. Fortunately, we have no lack of inspirational visions that could help you to develop the future you envisage and how your organization can play a role.

For instance, Kate Raworth pictures a future society shaped within outer planetary boundaries whilst ensuring good social standards in her Donut Economics (2017). Christina Figueras and Tom Rivett-Carnas demonstrate in the ‘The Future We Choose’ (2019) how humans will have created a world by 2050 and will have mitigated and adapted to climate change. Carolyn Steel shows in her book ‘Sitopia’ (2020) ‘How food can change the world’ embedded in its historical and cultural contexts. Lastly, the 10 finalists of the Rockefeller Food System Prize provide appealing visions of the food futures in different regions, where farmers, producers and consumers live in balance in nature and enjoy healthy food.

I’m thrilled and positive about these great thinkers among us. We have the privilege to learn from these thinkers and re-purpose their visionairy outlooks to design the future we want. The pictures of a future society, with roles companies, citizens and governments might be a bit ‘rosy’ – but without they can be a positive anchor point against which company ambitions can be set.

When are you successful? When are you done? Truth be said, you’ll never be truly ‘done’, but you will have done a great job if you will have created a collective picture of a sustainable and appealing future together with the company leaders.

3) Radically engage with the business

A decade ago, good Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance was considered a ‘nice to have’ but not really an essential element for companies to thrive and survive. This has changed radically as mainstream investors such as Blackrock confirmed a positive relationship between good ESG performance, higher resilience and better financial performance. And it’s not just the investors who have woken up to sustainability. Consumer research (Globescan, 2019) points out that consumers strive for a healthier and sustainable life, and search for brands an eco-conscious lifestyle. Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living Brands’, grow 69% faster than rest of the business and count for 75% of its growth. ‘Tony’s Chocolonely’, the Dutch boutique chocolate maker that strives for ‘slave-free chocolate’, has reached no less than 20% market share (2019) despite its higher price.

For a sustainability strategy to be successful, it is crucial to intimately collaborate with the business leadership. The commercial colleagues are in the best position to identify the added value spot the company’s major risks and business opportunities -also for sustainability. Business leaders understand how products can address customer needs and support customers in achieving their societal impact goals, science-based targets, transparency, and ultimately, the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ideally, it have to be the business leaders who become the champions for change – and this will be the case if they see how important sustainability is for both the short term added value and long-term resilience of the company.

So, when are you ‘done’? If sustainability is fully embedded in the company and business strategies, with trained self-propelling sustainability-oriented strategists, marketeers and market insight managers, you’ve come a long way!

4) Hard-wiring and soft-wiring the change

In her book the ‘7 roles to create sustainable business (to be launched Oct 6th, 2020), Carola Wijdoogen points at the necessary roles a sustainability manager has to perform depending on the context, ranging from the ‘strategist’, who co-develops the strategy to the ‘networker’, ‘coordinator’, ‘stimulator’, ‘innovator’, ‘monitor’ and ‘mentor’. She explains that, depending on different maturity stages of a company, you will need to apply different tactics, nudges, inspiration, warnings and encouragement. In any case, to create a positive impact, it is all about ‘ change’ for which ‘hard-wiring’ and ‘soft-wiring’ is needed.

‘Hard-wiring’ starts with a good understanding of the current situation and pressures at stake: What are emerging societal themes that are material for the company you should look into? What is the actual environmental and social performance of the company, at the business group and on product level? You can apply a range of methods, metrics and good practices – such as the materiality matrix process (Finch & Beak), life cycle assessments for environmental impact (Pré Consultancy) or social impact (Roundtable handbook), frameworks for portfolio steering (WBCSD) and guidelines for ‘products that last – designing for circular economy’ (Bakker et all, Delft University of Technology 2015). ESG and Sustainability benchmarks such as CDP, Sustainalytics, Ecovadis and SAM’s DJSI can also help you to identify areas of improvement. Ultimately, sustainability ‘Key Performance Indicators’ have to become part of the annual reporting and bonus schemes to create an extra impetus for good performance.

For soft-wiring, a slightly different route is recommended. Important will be to look for sponsors across the organization for all important causes for these causes are close to their heart and relevant for their business. Go stealth by default, experiment and try. Fuel, train and encourage the champions. If you want others to propel: help them to shine. Focus on internal capacity development in the internal sustainability councils, sharing meetings, ambassador programs, and trainings. Share experiences with your like-minded, internally and externally, for instance through the ‘ State of the Profession’ network in the Netherlands:

When can you call yourself successful? If you have created a self-propelling mechanism of people and processes that monitors and manage progress and found a way to stay on the outlook and  raise the bar you are doing a fabulous job.

5. Frappez Toujours

One of my innovation colleagues gave me once a simple but good advice ‘Frappez Toujours’: This does not mean ‘hammering down’ a message, but gently but consciously keep repeating important messages. Do not just assume all colleagues have front of mind what exactly the sustainability goals and ambitions are. To make sustainability missions land, find different channels and means, in texts, visuals, videos is essential. Make it personal.

So, when do you know you did a good job? When everybody is aware about the sustainability mission of the company, champions rally for the key causes, people know how they can have an impact in their daily work.

To conclude..

The ultimate goal of sustainability managers could be to make yourself redundant: A self-propelling and sustainable organization, with owners of the relevant topics who keep raising the bar and searching for positive impact, with employees who know how they contribute to the company mission. If you make a few steps in this direction I believe you can be very proud.

Many of the current sustainability activities are likely to have moved into other disciplines, and that’s great: reporting non-financial sustainability performance will likely become part of Finance & Control, assessing and managing sustainability risks will become part of risk management, strategic marketing and sourcing; sustainability parameters will become standard components of innovation ideation and stage-gate monitoring, and sustainability will become an integral part of company and marketing communications. Embedding sustainability across the organization is certainly a measure of success of a sustainability manager.

Although other disciplines may embed some of the current sustainability roles, a couple of them are likely to stay in a central ‘sustainability’ team – or under a different name. I can imagine that in the future there will be an ‘Antenna’ who is tasked to keep monitoring new external and societal developments, bringing the outside in, ‘Warriors’ for emerging topics that need to be assessed and shaped, an internal ‘Coach’ for the many people across the company tasked with sustainability, and, perhaps, an officer that can be the ‘Chief Ethics’ when dilemma’s arise. The future will learn.

I wish you lots of passion, energy and success. I’d be pleased to learn about your experiences.

Jacobine Das Gupta, Director Sustainability | sustainable food systems and healthy diets at DSM


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