A Sustainability Conference, Without Sustainability Professionals?

I recently attended another interesting and enjoyable BSR Conference, this year focused on the Power of Networks (and conveniently for the GlobeScan San Francisco team – located in our own fair city!). At the conclusion of the conference I left having spoken to many interesting people who are doing fabulous and formative work in the sustainability arena. My own personal network is always expanded, and I am buoyed by the efforts of these people who are leading their companies to conduct business in a responsible and sustainable way.
However, on day two I found myself reflecting on the results of the BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey we conducted before the conference (read the 5th annual report here). While the report highlights the extent to which businesses are utilizing their networks to collaborate externally on sustainability issues, it also points out that for most businesses, internal integration and engagement on sustainability still remains a challenge.
My lunch table on day two was occupied by a group of very interesting people working in the corporate sustainability or CSR function of their company. Looking around the room, I noticed several familiar faces that similarly support their companies’ sustainability initiatives through work within a corporate sustainability function. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think about a future conference where all the attendees are not sustainability professionals, but instead representatives from finance, R&D, product development, logistics and HR. Can we get to a point when the room is full of people for whom sustainability is simply a baked-in part of their job, rather than the only focus of their job? Is this an achievable measure of progress?
Indications from the most recent BSR/GlobeScan survey suggest that we may be still some way from this realization:

  • For the third year running, the highest proportion (62%) of sustainability professionals from BSR member organizations point to “integrating sustainability into core business functions” as their most important challenge.
  • Our findings indicate that approximately a quarter of professionals say their company is fairly advanced in its efforts toward total integration of sustainability into their core business (23%). However, most are still achieving only moderate levels of integration (53%) or just starting out (24%).
  • Where integration is happening, it appears largely concentrated on a handful of functions. When asked how much alignment core business functions have with the sustainability function within the company, only for four functions (corporate communications, public affairs, supply chain/procurement, CEO’s office) do a majority of professionals say there is at least a fair amount of engagement with the sustainability function.
  • For many other functions (as illustrated in the figure below), engagement appears to be in short measure. For example, only 37% say any meaningful engagement is happening with investor relations, 34% with human resources, 32% with R&D, 28% with marketing, and just 16% with finance.

However, despite these findings I do believe that greater integration is happening in many companies. We at GlobeScan are working with an increasing number of clients who place a premium on the engagement between the sustainability function and other business functions. Moreover, our stakeholder intelligence and engagement projects are increasingly focused on internal stakeholders. The story emerging from many of these projects is one of greater internal integration, being forged by emerging leaders who are demonstrating that sustainability is an important and integral part of the business, and not simply an add-on.