Keeping sustainability alive during a recession means seizing the moment

You cannot read, watch or listen to the news today without hearing about the threat of an impending recession. Whether this recession will happen is not yet known, but what we do know is that companies are acting as if it has already hit, laying off workers and cutting costs. What does this mean for a company’s sustainability efforts and how can you help them stay on track? Or, better yet, amplify them in this uncertain environment?

We are sustainability veterans, a group of professionals who have held leadership positions in the world of corporate sustainability. We explore new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital – independent of any individual company – to help the next generation of sustainability leaders succeed. We have risen to the challenge of weathering a recession and share our hard-earned lessons here.

Language matters. “During difficult economic times, business leaders gravitate to what is most familiar to them, and it is easy to cut what is not perceived as ‘essential’ for the business,” noted Mark Buckley. , former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative. . “In good times and bad, meet leaders where they are and intentionally combine sustainability with language they understand regarding business risk and opportunity. This approach creates additive “sustainable/regenerative value stacks” for all businesses that, in good times or bad, cannot be ignored.”

Recessions can bring options to the table that would not normally be considered.

Follow the money. Make the business case, pointed out Sarah Severn, who has spent more than two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike and is now director of Severn Consulting. “In 1999, we were halfway through a major sustainability ‘learning by doing’ program across Nike when the Asian financial crisis hit. ROI, whether in terms of innovation or cost savings for all projects. The key to resilience is ensuring your program enjoys strong internal buy-in and can withstand economic volatility and headwinds.”

Trisa Thompson, attorney and former chief accountability officer at Dell Technologies, advises starting with the data. “Numerous studies show that companies with strong CSR goals and focus outperform their peers during economic downturns, including the 2008 recession. And they recover faster. Additionally, long-term sustainability goals drive innovation in a business, which usually results in cost savings. Companies like Dell, Unilever, Walmart, and Clorox have reduced costs through sustainability innovations including downsizing packaging, recycling and reusing materials, sustainably sourcing materials, and improvement of facilities. Cost reduction will attract the attention of your company’s executives.

Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainability for the DuPont Company from 1998 to 2019, agrees. “Focus on actions that you can put a financial edge on. These may not be the most material things the organization should be working on, but they are things that senior management will see as helping to help the organization through difficult times: reducing energy and water consumption through employee initiatives, better managing supply chains to reduce waste and training sales and marketing teams to better engage customers around potential sustainable development projects.”

Think like a CFO, advised Kathrin Winkler, former director of sustainability for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and senior editor for GreenBiz. “I started as a CSO during the height of the 2008 recession. My boss gave me good advice: don’t directly ask for more; instead, be clear about what you can and can’t. do with what you have Understand business financial pressures and consider projects that can be funded by the balance sheet rather than expenses And avoid spending on SWAG or rewards that would seem heartless when people are scared for their jobs.

Line up with your board, advises Ellen Weinreb, sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans. “The role of the CSO is changing and will require more alignment between the CFO and the board. This was rare a decade ago. income statements – auditable, insurable and comparable This involves more integrated reporting and alignment with the CFO Board oversight and the establishment of board-related governance structures are not only more common, but they are required under SASB and other initiatives.”

Look ahead. “Assuming you have the right strategy and the right size of team, encourage your team to keep their heads down, execute and deliver measurable results for the business,” advised Lynelle Cameron, former vice president of the sustainable development at Autodesk and ESG advisor for regenerative companies. . “As a leader and CSO, it’s your responsibility to look ahead and focus on what lies ahead, anticipating the macroeconomic forces that will shape business and the economy post-recession so you can position the ‘business appropriately to emerge from the recession, ready for the next set of challenges.’

Seize the moment. Paul Murray launched his sustainability recruitment firm, Integrated Sustainable Strategies, during the 2008 recession after a decade of sustainability, serving as vice president of sustainability at Shaw Industries and director of sustainability at Herman Miller. “What we saw then and what we see now is that recessions are an opportunity to course correct. Despite layoffs at Microsoft, Netflix and Peloton, our phone is still ringing. the number of companies engaged in initiatives like CDP, SASB, TCFD – all having ripple effects on a net increase in jobs.”

All of this requires CSOs to know their business and their leadership, according to Bart Alexander, former director of corporate responsibility at Molson Coors, who now helps companies drive lasting change through Alexander & Associates and action against climate change thanks to Plan C Advisors. “Deepen your understanding of the drivers of your business and build trusting relationships with members of your leadership team. Then, through good times or bad, your expertise will be appreciated as you advise on strategies for a low-carbon business. carbon and more durable.”

Alexander continued, “Recessions can bring options to the table that would not normally be considered. Seizing opportunities for more substantial overhaul.”

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