Why Sustainability Professionals are Key to a Net-Positive World

[As part of last month’s GreenBiz conference, my Net Positive co-author (Paul Polman) and I wrote an article about the critical role of sustainability executives in driving change. They’re the connectors to the organization and the outside world. Here are some excerpts. The full article is here.]

It’s a paradox. We are doing more than ever to tackle climate change, taking strides that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, yet we feel more overwhelmed and even terrified. This is the “eco-anxiety” everybody’s talking about, and the young feel it most.

But there is good news. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability has risen up the corporate and global agenda as more CEOs and world leaders recognize the systemic nature of the challenges we face…But even though we’re making progress, we’re not moving fast enough…So, in a world where we’re doing more, but even more is needed, how do we find our courage and willpower?

…We’re often asked, “How do I make a difference? I’m not the CEO. What can I do?” The answer is: a lot. Companies can only truly become net positive when seasoned and passionate professionals provide leadership from the middle out.

You are the bridge between senior executives and a younger workforce that needs no convincing. You are the people most looked to for guidance, training, career development — and inspiration and motivation. You understand like no one else how the company works: It’s the systems that drive behavior, and often the company’s history and journey thus far…

You are also agents of your company’s culture. When Andrew interviewed dozens of current and former Unilever employees from around the world, he was struck by how alike they sounded — not as robots, but with a clear sense of the company was about. We would bet good money it’s the same at other companies that have not only defined their purpose but have applied it over and over again in what they do…

Finally, you’re the conduit to the outside world, to the stakeholders and wider systems that we need to transform. We need companies to collaborate with their critics, their competition, civil society and governments on the big, systemic problems we cannot tackle alone…

This call, to build a net-positive business with a higher purpose — and making it live and breathe — is the antidote to the fear and fatigue that might otherwise grip us in these challenging days. Each of us has a part to play, and each has power and leverage. It cannot be done without the full support from middle-level leaders. Yours is a vital role in propelling more businesses along the net-positive journey and accelerating the transition. With enough leadership, we will, together, do more than we thought was possible.

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