Adding the Big “S” Doesn’t Always Make it Sustainable

Mark C. Coleman

Does it seem as if environmental, health, and safety (EHS) professionals are getting longer titles? In the past year I have participated in many conferences and workshops, including NAEM’s well-attended 2011 EHS Management Forum, “EHS & Sustainability Success in the New Economic Era” in Tucson last fall. Call it a qualitative trend, but more EHS professionals now have “Sustainability” as part of their professional title. This should come as no major surprise, particularly as companies, small and large, begin to formally address sustainability within their daily operations, strategic planning and management of their enterprise.

Sustainability is serious business and it is the new and in-vogue “big S” confronting stakeholder engagement, current affairs and future competitiveness of corporations. Understanding the business context of, and taking action on, sustainability, requires support and engagement from all corporate functions (i.e., C- suite, EHS, legal, marketing, HR, public affairs, finance, manufacturing, and so on). Corporations can gain or lose ground on the “big S” depending upon how they align internal resources and pursue sustainability as a business strategy.

While this is anecdotal, it seems as if more companies have added the “big S” of sustainability to their traditional EHS functions more rapidly in the past two years. This begs the questions: Are EHS organizations equipped and prepared to deliver upon the “big S”?, Is EHS the right corporate function to lead the “big S”?, Is the “big S” truly being addressed in the company, or is it simply an additional title to maintain appearances?

These questions are highly consequential, not only to the viability of addressing sustainability in a deliberate and strategic way, but also to the success of the EHS organization, and the long-term performance, reputation and impact of the corporation. Given the challenges of the global economic environment, and amid many internal-and-external stakeholder pressures, many organizations are facing resource and talent constraints in trying to address all issues or being all things to all people.  And, another responsibility, albeit a very ambiguous one at that in the “big S”, can tax those already-constrained resources.

So what to do? The following questions provide a framework for initiating critical thinking behind whether the “big S” should be part of your EHS organization, and to what degree your organization is prepared to assume responsibility for sustainability within your traditional EHS framework.

  • Strategic Orientation: Does your company have a sustainability strategy? How was the strategy initiated? Has the strategy been adopted? Who is responsible and accountable to ensuring the strategy is achieved? Have processes and metrics been established to monitor and measure the performance and impact of your strategy? How frequently is your sustainability performance reviewed? Is your sustainability strategy an integral part of your overall corporate strategy?
  • Current State of Affairs: What stage of development are your sustainability efforts within your corporation? Are there formal strategies, programs, processes and people dedicated to your sustainability efforts?
  • Accountability: Who is responsible and accountable for ensuring your sustainability strategy is enacted, measured and integrated throughout the company? What is the scope of influence of this individual? Do they have profit-and-loss responsibilities, or do they serve an enterprise service function? Is sustainability managed as a centralized, decentralized, or combination of both functions within your company?
  • Leadership and Governance: Has your senior management embraced sustainability as a strategic priority? Has your sustainability effort been reactionary to market, shareholder, stakeholder, customer needs or issues? Has the corporate board discussed sustainability? Has sustainability been integrated into corporate governance procedures, policies or documentation?
  • Engagement:  Have people, policies and practices been aligned toward a sustainability strategy within your company? How has this evolution occurred? Who has led the evolution of sustainability within your company?
  • Role of EHS: Is sustainability considered an extension or addition to the responsibilities within EHS? What role does or has EHS served in supporting sustainability within your company?
  • Integration: Has your company defined sustainability goals and strategy within the context of its people, corporate culture, business, products, history and business strategy? What internal functional groups have participated in the sustainability dialogue and evolution? What is the role of these groups going forward?
  • Enterprise Risk Management: Has your organization conducted risk mapping of emerging issues, internal and external stakeholder points-of-view and perceptions, and other factors that influence the sustainability context of your business?
  • Customized Pursuit of Growth and Innovation: Are your sustainability strategy and goals customized to your business, products and corporate context? Or are they a “drop-down menu” of disparate programs, metrics and goals that “seem” to be what every other company uses? Is sustainability viewed and pursued as an opportunity for risk management, innovation and corporate growth? Or is sustainability the “extra thing” on your full plate?

EHS organizations have a great deal to offer to the sustainability agenda for business, and can serve as the center of excellence to help bring corporate functions together, facilitate discussion and support strategic planning for sustainability. Benchmarking what is being done in other companies, including assessing best practices on business sustainability, is another service EHS organizations can conduct to provide immediate value to the corporation. Corporate EHS and sustainability programs are currently, and will continue to be, compared against each other as much as your product portfolio and financial performance is evaluated by external organizations.  Thus, benchmarking others programs can lead to greater understanding of how others are finding value in, and implementing sustainability, and can lead to a more strategic and purposeful advancement of the “big S” within your company.

Adding the “big S” to EHS titles needs to be a deliberate and strategic decision. And once that “S” is added, we need to be prepared to be accountable to the new title.  What do you think the relative opportunities and risks are of adding sustainability to the EHS function? Should any one department have responsibility for the “big S” or should it be attached to everyone’s job title?


About Mark C. Coleman

Mark C. Coleman manages the Clean Energy Incubator (CEI) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and is a Senior Program Manager for the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS) and the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS). His first book, “The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Accountability is Essential NOW” will be published in September 2012.

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1 Comment
  1. William D'Alessandro

    March 19, 2012

    “What do you think the relative opportunities and risks are of adding sustainability to the EHS function?”

    The risks of NOT adding sustainability to the EHS function are two equally scary outcomes:

    1) the EHS professional will be reduced to the role of a glorified janitor; and

    2) the corporation will never understand how to maximize the value of triple-bottom-line management.

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