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Keeping you in-the-know on environmental, social and governance developments

Sustainability professionals like to talk about how sustainability is cross-functional and intersects just about every part of a company. That is true but that comes with turf battles. Internal departments/functions beyond the sustainability function must be engaged in these efforts. Identifying cost savings and revenue growth opportunities can’t really be done comprehensively by CSOs or sustainability/ESG staff on their own. This begs an important question:

When business opportunities linked to sustainability are identified, who takes the credit?

In some companies, this is almost a life-or-death question for sustainability staff and department funding. The fight for credit/recognition can be particularly intense during periods of corporate cutbacks, layoffs, strategic reviews and restructuring/reorganization. Battles like these go back to the 1990s: I’ve told the story about a former colleague who found a solution to a wastewater treatment problem that threatened to shut down a paper mill indefinitely. The shutdown, estimated internally at $500 million in operating costs, legal fees, fines/penalties and lost revenue, was averted. He claimed to executives that he was personally and solely responsible for avoiding that loss.*

Generally speaking, the business value of sustainability/ESG for an operating company can be broken into cost savings and revenue growth, which are the topics of a recent blog series (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4). Sometimes, it is clear where sustainability value credit is due, but usually not. Where credit isn’t clear, you are faced with choices in claiming your territory.

  • Be satisfied with shared or “secondary credit.” Taking a back seat to the business function to which the benefit applies sounds counterintuitive, but ending conversations with “Oh, and that gives us hard-dollar sustainability value, too” has its benefits. This subtly eliminates barriers between operations and ESG/sustainability, and you won’t be perceived as overstepping boundaries (I’m talking internal perception – perhaps not the reality). You will get brownie points for being easy to work with and not taking credit for others’ efforts.
  • Be aggressive in getting all or “primary credit.” There can be situations where sustainability is the catalyst for business opportunities and it is appropriate to assert that. Other times, it may be imperative to fight for recognition or sustainability’s place at the table. Just be aware that taking an aggressive stance internally can damage your reputation and dissuade others from wanting to work with you. It may also make people fight against you just out of spite.

There will be rare circumstances where it could be worth taking a backseat to others – depending on internal politics. Don’t make a habit of that, though – it will hurt you in the long run. Every company (and probably situation) is different, so credit-sharing might not always be a problem and you might have other ways of addressing the situations. Just be thoughtful about how you go about it.

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* In reality, he wasn’t serious about his claim. We were in the midst of a company-wide EVA (Economic Value Added) initiative and corporate staff were required to justify our personal and departmental existence by applying the metric. His action was intended as satire against our EVA mandate.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile