Shaping the future: the strategic evolution of the Sustainability Director

Jerome Bull | 9 May 2024

In today’s corporate landscape, the role of the Sustainability Director has shifted dramatically from a tactical role into a more wide-ranging and strategic function, crucial for long-term business success and resilience.

With exclusive insights from Fiacre O’Donnell, Sustainability Director at leading glass container manufacturer, Encirc, part of the Vidrala Group, Jerome Bull highlights the evolution of the role from peripheral consideration to fundamental component of strong corporate strategy.


From protecting reputation to setting the agenda

Traditionally, the Sustainability Director was a narrower and more functional role, often serving as a sustainability-focused extension of H&S and/or environmental business units. Consequently, the Sustainability Director’s involvement in critical strategic decision-making – an area that was traditionally dominated by CEOs, CFOs, and other senior executives – was often minimal.

However, in recent years ESG issues have become increasingly important for both business decision-making and shareholder reporting and evaluation. The Sustainability Director role has, in turn, undergone a profound transformation and become much more stand alone and higher in seniority within corporate hierarchies.


Today’s strategic visionaries

Modern Sustainability Directors now play a central role in weaving ESG considerations directly into the corporate strategy. This shift requires them to possess an intricate understanding of the business and the nuanced interplay between various sustainability dimensions, economic, environmental, and social.

Fiacre emphasises the importance of a holistic approach that encompasses people, place, planet, and prosperity. This reflects a broader trend where Sustainability Directors are no longer seen as specialists in environmental issues but as integral leaders capable of steering the company towards sustainable profitability.

In addition, many businesses now track their sustainability progress against recognised, demanding and wide-ranging external frameworks, for example B-Corp. Again, this requires a strong, seasoned professional who can take a holistic view.

According to Fiacre, successful Sustainability Directors must therefore be big-picture thinkers with a solid grasp of business operations and the ability to integrate sustainability into the company’s core strategies.


Professionalisation and increasing authority

The professionalisation of the Sustainability Director role is also crucial. Historically, there have been significant barriers to this professionalisation, including inconsistencies across sectors and insufficient access to power and resources.

These challenges are now beginning to be addressed as companies recognise the strategic importance of the role. For example, modern Sustainability Directors are more involved in investor meetings and strategic discussions, reflecting their growing authority and the increasing investor interest in sustainable practices.

Moreover, implementing effective sustainability practices requires not only strategic vision but also operational expertise and robust communication skills. Fiacre points out the need for inclusion and action, suggesting that sustainability initiatives must involve as many stakeholders as possible, both within and outside the organisation. This inclusive approach helps leverage collective intelligence and ensures that sustainability efforts are comprehensive and well-supported across the company.


Challenges and communication

Despite these advances, challenges persist, particularly in balancing immediate operational demands with long-term sustainability objectives. Fiacre points out that early sustainability initiatives across many organisations often served as valuable experiments but lacked the urgency and business-critical integration of today’s strategies.

With that in mind, clear and effective communication is crucial to the role. As Fiacre argues, it’s critical that Sustainability Directors can command the respect and buy-in of leaders across a business and to transparently report on the impact initiatives are making, to promote cross-organisation consistency and accountability.


Hallmarks of a strong Sustainability Director

The evolution of the Sustainability Director role reflects not only a shift in business practices but also a broader societal recognition of the importance of sustainable development in ensuring long-term corporate and environmental health.

The Sustainability Director required today is a strong leader who exhibits a blend of strategic insight, operational expertise, and strong leadership to effectively integrate sustainability into the fabric of corporate strategy.

For that reason, as the role has evolved Sustainability Directors have often by necessity been senior leaders who have transitioned into the role from other areas of the business. However, the Sustainability Director role is now recognised as a discipline in its own right.

For companies searching for a new Sustainability Director – whether that be an internal appointment from another department or bringing in a completely new, seasoned specialist – it’s crucial to select candidates who embody the blend of strengths the position demands.

Key considerations include:

  • Strategic alignment: Seek candidates who can align sustainability initiatives with the company’s broader strategic objectives, ensuring that these efforts contribute directly to long-term business success.
  • Business acumen: Choose someone with a strong understanding of the business landscape, including financial, operational, and market dynamics, to effectively integrate sustainability into core business processes.
  • Leadership and influence: The ideal candidate should have proven leadership skills and the ability to influence and engage with stakeholders at all levels, both internally and externally.
  • Holistic approach: Prioritise candidates who demonstrate a comprehensive approach to sustainability, covering environmental, social, and governance aspects, and who can balance these with the company’s economic goals.
  • Communication skills: Ensure the candidate has excellent communication and relationship building skills, capable of articulating sustainability goals and progress clearly to diverse audiences, including investors, employees, and the public.


Need to hire a Sustainability Director? Get in touch today.

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