Net Impact 2014: The Future of Sustainability Leadership

Sometimes, the present bodes well for the future. Last week I attended the 2014 Net Impact conference in Minneapolis, and it was a buzz of energy and enthusiasm: everywhere one looked there were high-caliber students and “professionals” in CSR and sustainability wanting to forge greater connections to deliver impact. The energy in the sprawling Convention Center was contagious, with professionals feeding off the ambition and enthusiasm of rising leaders in the room.
While the focus of this event tends to be on students, professional representation at Net Impact is growing every year. As potential leaders in sustainability, Net Impact student members are hungry for the opportunity to effect real change in organizations through active roles in CSR and sustainability.  Professional attendees, however, know they face a challenging road ahead. In a panel session on the future of CSR leadership (co-chaired by my colleague Eric Whan), Dave Stangis, VP of Sustainability at Campbell’s, told students this: “If you wait for a job with sustainability in the title, you will be waiting a long time.”
This might have seemed discouraging to the mainly young audience at first, but the sentiment was quite the opposite, and actually very empowering. Rather than pursuing sustainability-specific jobs, which are frequently siloed within organizations, students should look to incorporate their passion and drive for sustainability into jobs across organizations, regardless of where they fall – legal, communications, finance, or wherever else. In this way, these rising professionals can work toward more transformative change in areas that may not otherwise play a stated role in sustainability strategy, and ultimately bring about a more integrated approach to sustainability across the business. As Net Impact CEO Liz Maw said in her opening remarks, “we can all break the boundaries within our own orbit.”
Research conducted by GlobeScan, Net Impact, and BSR shows that both member organizations believe that integration of sustainability into core business is by far the most significant challenge for leadership today. Until now, sustainability departments, representatives and officers have led the charge internally for greater sustainability and stewardship, but the call for greater integration of these issues across business – from both rising and current sustainability professionals – is loud and clear.
What else needs to change for business to reach greater integration of sustainability? According to keynote speaker and Unilever CEO Paul Polman, “we simply need to make it evolve” by doing business differently – as Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in response to economic distress, we now need to action new approaches for business that respond to today’s environmental and social challenges. Polman’s own leadership of Unilever, and its associated Sustainable Living Plan, have set new standards for corporate sustainability to which rising leaders from Net Impact can aspire, and progress. With their example, Unilever and other leading companies are shifting discussions of corporate sustainability and shareholder value toward a broader corporate purpose, a guiding identity that focuses on positive, long-term contributions to society that will serve shareholders well.
The next generation of sustainability leadership may be here in Net Impact, in its members who are enthusiastic and excited about the possibilities for business to favor more sustainable and equitable approaches. Current leaders also acknowledge these students as potential pioneers in innovating impact: when asked why there aren’t more Paul Polmans out there – more CEOs leading transformative sustainability platforms in companies – without hesitation, Polman responded, “There are 5,000 right here in this audience.”