25 October, 2022 / Comment

Top five tips for new sustainability managers

By Lau Tambjerg, senior sustainability consultant, EcoAct

There were nearly 2,000 job posts with the title of ‘sustainability manager’ in London alone this summer

Top five tips for new sustainability managers

Getting to net-zero will require transformation of how companies do business. It won’t be enough to simply do more of the same, or only do it better. Collaboration within and across organisations will be essential in achieving the ambitious goal of net-zero.

To address this challenge, companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities within sustainability and appointing sustainability managers to lead the firm’s internal strategy. Here are our top 5 tips for sustainability managers to succeed in their role.

What is the role of a sustainability manager?

Based on LinkedIn data, in July 2022 there were nearly 2,000 job posts with the title of ‘sustainability manager’ in London alone. These new managers will have an increasingly complex task to meet the expectations of investors, customers, and other stakeholders. To effectively address these areas in a business, wide internal and external engagement is needed, and some managers may choose to engage with additional support from specialist environmental consultants.

If you’re a sustainability manager working with external consultants, below is some advice that can be useful to ensure that your company, colleagues, and consultants are all on the same page when it comes to reaching net-zero.

1. Understanding your company

This advice may seem obvious, but the first step in furthering your sustainability agenda is ensuring that your external consultants thoroughly understand how your company works from a business perspective. Transforming a company to net-zero requires significant changes in strategy, structure, and systems.

Your consultants should be going beyond a surface-level understanding of your business. Are they asking the right questions about your products, key services, internal divisions, and value offerings? Sustainability objectives should be deeply integrated in the core of your business, not just as an add-on. There is increasing evidence that by integrating sustainability within the business strategy, companies outperform their peers over the long term, and that taking unique initiatives that fully align with a company’s overall purpose can itself lead to competitive advantage.

If your business chooses to work with external consultants, you should share as much as you can within your knowledge of the company. The better they understand your pain points, frictions, and opportunities for collaboration, the better they can tailor their work and suggestions to the company’s context and structures.

2. Set ambitious and inspiring sustainability targets

Setting ambitious sustainability targets allows businesses to better integrate sustainability into their overall strategy, thus creating competitive value. As a sustainability manager, you should be setting science-based, measurable targets that are aligned with net-zero objectives. Some examples of these targets may include: Science-Based Targets, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aligned targets, circular economy targets, and avoided emissions targets. To successfully set and implement the targets, we recommend :

  • Getting senior buy-in from the start: You should prioritise getting a senior stakeholder, such as an executive or board member, to vouch for your targets in order to help clear potential obstacles. This also means you have an ally on the executive team when the targets need to be approved.
  • Involve all business units and functions: Your sustainability team will be unable to achieve these targets on their own. You will want to get engagement from individual units, divisions, and functions in the business to make targets relevant to the various parts of the business.
  • Push for targets that are higher than what may be comfortable: As net-zero requires wide-scale transformation of the business, you should be setting targets that go well beyond business as usual or existing business plans. While these targets might not have a clear or easy route to achievement, setting high targets has been shown to lead to a higher completion rate and drive innovation.

3. Develop strong networks throughout the organisation

Getting to net-zero should not be the responsibility of a single centralised function nor an individual or a small team. Effective sustainability managers should be broadening this responsibility throughout the entire organisation.

Some people, while aware of broader sustainability initiatives in the company, may feel as though they aren’t able to contribute, or don’t have the right tools to do so. As a sustainability manager, you can build a strong internal network by:

  • Empowering your team: Many companies used to appoint just one person to handle sustainability issues, but as the issue has grown in importance it has encouraged the growth of sustainability teams. Encourage and empower your newly expanded team to lead the company in meeting its objectives.
  • Avoid viewing internal stakeholders as ‘data owners’: While most people might understand the core reasons of why we need to address climate change, it is still very important for you to personally bring meaning to your stakeholders, rather than simply using them to extract data. So, inspire and show them how they can become a partner in meeting your organisation’s targets by building a connection that goes beyond the numbers.

4. Know your terminology and reporting frameworks

There is a lot of terminology within the field of sustainability, and it is unavoidable that people within your organisation might have differing understandings of these. Educating up and across early is key. You should be setting expectations and agreeing on a common way of talking about GHG emissions and net-zero.

In addition to sharing common terminology, people need to be familiar with the legal requirements and what is expected from a company in your sector. This is critical in avoiding reputational damage and potentially even legal fines. One way you could build a strong governance and framework around targets, emissions reductions and plans, is by using Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Net Zero Framework for Business.

If you’re selecting between the wide range of reporting frameworks and requirements available, this e-book covers most of them. Additionally, frameworks developed by Tim Rogmans and Karim El-Jisr can also help you choose and design your sustainability report according to your specific business needs.

5. Take your time

It can be easy for companies to feel the need to urgently communicate their ambitions with competitors left and right, announcing their own targets and commitments. However, we suggest deliberating carefully on this rather than rushing it. Before communicating any commitments, you should ensure that you have built up your internal capabilities and that everyone in your company is aligned on their goals.

Well-managed and effective communication not only demonstrates compliance with national and international regulations, but also shows foresight and increased ambition on the organisation’s part. It can strongly influence an organisation’s image, but above all, it is a powerful driver of change. Here are some best practice examples you can follow when communicating your climate commitments, in order to build trust and confidence with your network.

We hope that these tips can help you navigate the increasingly complex area of net-zero within your company. Businesses that have dedicated sustainability managers have already made the investment, but to make effective progress, a good sustainability manager should be fostering an environment for open and active collaboration between all internal and external stakeholders.

A part of the Mark Allen Group.