Small Teams Driving Integration of Sustainability into Business

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT|Updated: Nov. 4, 2021 at 10:30 AM EDT

NEW YORK, Nov. 4, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- As leaders at COP26 tackle climate change, a new report sheds light on how companies can organize themselves to integrate sustainability into their businesses. Produced by The Conference Board, the report covers issues including where sustainability sits within companies, the size of sustainability departments, and key priorities of sustainability teams.

(PRNewsfoto/The Conference Board)
(PRNewsfoto/The Conference Board)

According to the report, there is no "right" answer for where sustainability sits in an organization. While having a chief sustainability officer who reports to the CEO can galvanize a company's efforts, reporting to the CEO is less important than access to the C-suite and board. A company's sustainability leader needs strong strategic planning and persuasion skills; a core team that can carry out certain essential functions; strong relationships with areas such as finance, strategy, law, human resources, and corporate communications; and clear governance structures that can help integrate sustainability into the business.

The report's insights are derived from a survey of more than 100 sustainability executives, in-depth interviews, and a roundtable discussion with more than 100 sustainability executives. Additional insights include:

Where does Sustainability Sit Within the Company?

  • In the US, 19 percent of sustainability heads report to the CEO, compared to about 40 percent in Europe:

What Occupies the Sustainability Leader's Time?

  • Most time-consuming activities: Overall, sustainability heads say they spend the most time on 1) embedding sustainability strategy in the organization; followed by 2) strategy development; and 3) reporting and communication.
  • Key competencies of a successful sustainability leader: Given the amount of time devoted to embedding strategy in the organization, exceling at this job requires a few key attributes: business knowledge, credibility, authority, fluency in sustainability, and superior communications skills.
  • At smaller companies, nearly twice as many sustainability leaders say reporting is among their most time-consuming tasks:

How Big is the Typical Sustainability Team?

  • US teams most often have 2-5 full-time employees, and European teams most often have 6-10:
  • Compared to European companies, twice as many US companies have one-person teams:
  • Success doesn't hinge on having a big team. The ability to fulfill four key tasks should inform size:

"Sustainability executives are not looking to build an empire," said Thomas Singer, Principal Researcher at The Conference Board ESG Center and author of the report. "Most sustainability executives who lead small teams, for example, think having a team of six to 10 would help them accomplish what they need. Indeed, some heads of sustainability who oversee large teams see the day when their corporate teams may decrease in size, due to sustainability being fully embedded in their company's DNA."

How Often Does the Sustainability Leader Meet with the C-suite and Board?

  • Most US sustainability heads meet at least bi-monthly with the C-suite, at least annually with the board:

"Boards are increasingly accountable for the ESG efforts of their companies—from climate change risks to diversity to supply chain resilience and more. So, now more than ever, boards can benefit by having direct access to their companies' sustainability leaders," said Paul Washington, Executive Director of The Conference Board ESG Center. "And sustainability leaders, too, stand to benefit immensely by having direct exposure to their boards, including by getting a better understanding of the overarching priorities of their organizations."

How are Sustainability Initiatives Implemented?

  • 63 percent of larger companies ($10 billion and over) use the hub-and-spoke model: Under this approach, the sustainability team provides overall guidance, while most of the responsibility for implementing initiatives rests within the business units.
  • Centralized structures are most common among the smallest companies: Among companies with revenues of less than $5 billion, a plurality (44 percent) use a centralized model.

Which Departments Most Interact with the Sustainability Team?

  • Amount of engagement—most and least—with other functions:
  • Notable differences between the US and Europe:
  • Sustainability teams can benefit from more interaction with finance:

Looking to the Future: What's in Store Over the Next 3-5 Years?

  • More integration into the business: 98 percent expect an increase in the level of integration of sustainability into the business. 40 percent expect it to somewhat increase, and 58 percent expect a significant increase.
  • Modestly larger teams: 74 percent of survey respondents expect that the size of their sustainability teams will increase. 59 percent expect it to somewhat increase, and 15 percent expect a significant increase.
  • More prominent profile of the sustainability function/team at their firms: 88 percent expect the profile of the sustainability function/team in their organizations to increase. 42 percent expect it to somewhat increase, and 46 percent expect a significant increase.

About The Conference Board ESG Center
The Conference Board ESG Center serves as a resource, platform, and partner to help Member companies address their priorities in corporate governance, sustainability, and citizenship.

About The Conference Board
The Conference Board is the member-driven think tank that delivers trusted insights for what's ahead. Founded in 1916, we are a non-partisan, not-for-profit entity holding 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt status in the United States.

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SOURCE The Conference Board

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