What’s behind the upsurge in sustainability roles?

02 Oct 2019

What’s behind the upsurge in sustainability roles?

Jamie Williams, Partner at Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa on why hiring for sustainability is on the rise and how to do it well.

The Amazon has experienced over 76 000 fires this year. More than twice 2018’s total fire count. Within days of a massive social media storm, asset managers, pension funds and global goliaths like the VF Corporation suspended their dealings with Brazil. This shows a dramatic shift in narrative. Countries and businesses are now often expected to be bastions of sustainability and social good. That’s prompting a change in performance measurement, as well as the creation of new sustainability roles.

More and more sustainability roles

While the trend is not as apparent in South Africa, it has become a business imperative in the European Union, North America and Australia. It also depends on the industry.

In mining, sustainability has had to be top-of-mind for longer than it has been in other less visibly environmentally detrimental sectors.

Climate change is now also impacting financial institutions. Investment decisions often need to factor in sustainability and specialised deal teams are recruited for sustainability-focused transactions.

SAPPI’S focus on sustainability

One of the best examples of a South African-founded company that’s hiring for sustainability is SAPPI. SAPPI has become increasingly sustainability-focused across the entire value chain. For example, they provide wood fibres to clothing producers for the sustainable fashion movement. It’s also known for its sustainable plantations and processing, with environmental impact considered in every stage of production.

Recently, SAPPI appointed a Head of Sustainability for Europe. Odgers Berndtson found a Swiss-based Canadian with a forestry NGO background, able to be both environmentally and commercially aware. These are the kinds of individuals we expect to see becoming increasingly in-demand.

They have a serious passion for the environment but have the business experience and knowledge to match.

Odgers Berndtson also helped De Beers to appoint a Group Head of Safety and Sustainable Development.

Sustainability measures

Formal sustainability governance councils which meet to share best practices and measure progress against goals will become more of a must for corporates, as businesses increasingly integrate sustainability into their environmental, social and governance imperatives.

The 2019 PwC non-executive directors report suggests we’ll soon get to a point where Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors will be integrated into performance conditions. PwC believes, “This will mean that senior employees will also be compensated for the broader societal benefit of their long-term decisions—by looking at the number and quality of jobs that they have created, their contribution to the creation of sustainable infrastructure, or (for larger companies) the impact that they have had on the country’s overall gross domestic product.”

Beyond virtue signalling

As businesses’ social impact is increasingly prioritised, we’ll see more triple-bottom-line models where the emphasis is placed on shared value across a three-part framework that includes social, environmental and financial value.

Corporates will have to go beyond virtue signalling, to the point where they’re doing good, authentically, with real impact.

Much of this dramatic shift is driven by the end-user. Impact-conscious consumers want to engage with companies that are a force for good.  As a CEO, you don’t want to publicly get on the wrong side of Greta Thunberg, for example. She’s the voice of a powerful new generation that expects brands to ‘be better’.

Soon, we believe that sustainability roles will also evolve into sustainability auditing roles, where companies will be assessed against global best practice standards. I also foresee more sustainability communication roles, where companies’ ESG efforts are consistently narrated to the public.

Hiring well

Hiring for sustainability includes seeking high-performing people with the right science and business backgrounds coupled with a genuine drive to really make a difference. Businesses can’t afford to ignore the call for corporates to be bastions of sustainability. Their reputations will increasingly depend on how they ‘Do Good’. So, their human capital agenda will need to progress this business imperative.

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