Toward a Corporate World Where Sustainability Is an Expectation, Not a Goal

Paradoxically, the companies that are the most socially responsible may be the ones that are the least conspicuous about their social responsibility.

Darhill Crooks / The Atlantic

In this series, I’ve explored how people in different corporate roles and functions can push their companies towards more responsible and sustainable practices. So who has the power to make real and lasting change?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, those who are the most effective may be the employees who are the least visible. Scott Griffin, chief sustainability officer of the industrial packaging company Greif, told me that if a company has “progressed to a point where they are looking at sustainability as strategy and culture, the more integrated you get the less important the name ‘sustainability’ becomes—and I’d suggest that the role can be fully integrated and eliminated.” Though he added, “I believe that we are a ways from not needing the role.”

Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s chief futurist, demonstrated what that invisibility might look like in practice, demurring when I asked how her work has led to specific initiatives at Ford. “Ford has 187,000 employees, and I could never take credit for anything as an individual. Was I part of the discussion? Was I present at a brainstorming session that led to a ripple effect that changed things? I hope so. My role, though, is that in the best case I can help facilitate brainstorming that leads to new ideas that might shape and inform what the subject matter experts are supposed to do.”

However, not everyone strives to be invisible. Asked about the notion that his position should eventually cease to exist, Frank O’Brien-Bernini, chief sustainability officer for Owens Corning, told me: “I so don't agree with that. That's like saying that because we've got Sarbanes-Oxley, we don't need a CFO anymore. Like it would lead itself? Like we don't need a Chief R&D Officer or Chief Innovation Officer, because everybody gets that it matters? No, it needs to be led to happen.”

Indeed, everyone should act in accordance with the law, but no lawyers or compliance officers told me that they aim to put themselves out of business. Companies like DuPont and ExxonMobil embrace the mantra that safety is everyone’s responsibility, but they still have executives in charge of safety to maintain and improve their standards.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the notion that those with the deepest influence are those who can deploy that influence subtly. As Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch once told me, “Good advocacy is getting somebody to think that it is in their interest to do what you want them to do.” In his book Tribes, entrepreneur Seth Godin writes, “If it’s about your mission, about spreading the faith, about seeing something happen, not only do you not care about credit, you actually want other people to take credit.”

When it comes to driving change in a company, then, the “how” might be more important than the “what,” given that practically every role in a company has potential. As the nonprofit Net Impact advises its student and young-professional members seeking careers where they’ll make a difference: “The reality is that there are a limited number of corporate jobs with ‘sustainability’ or ‘citizenship’ in the job title. The good news is there are opportunities to make an impact from all roles within a company, not just from the vantage point of a dedicated department.”

Mark Moody-Stuart, a former managing director at Shell who chairs the United Nations Global Compact Foundation, told me that lots of people ask for his advice on how to build a career in corporate responsibility or sustainability. “I tell them, ‘The first thing you need is a career!’”

That said, these days there are more and more opportunities that are explicitly about sustainability. According to, sustainability-related headcount has increased for 40 percent of the more than 5,600 companies they surveyed; postings for sustainability jobs in U.S. companies have risen from 300 in 2010 to 700 in 2014. But that’s still not a huge number. For those who don’t land one of those jobs, they would do well to lead with their functional expertise and bring their sustainability values along with them.

Not that all positions are created equal. There are roles that unquestionably shape a company’s identity and enable it to function: Human resources determines the composition of a company’s staff; design decides what that staff produces; supply chain procures the ingredients of the product; operations and logistics move all the bits and pieces where they need to go; finance ensures that the money is flowing where it needs to flow.

These roles (and their equivalents for companies that don’t make stuff) are all so fundamental to a company that they should be obvious levers for change.

Then there are those executives whose authority is derived from some external force. For example, when lawyers and compliance officers speak, they speak with the authority of the law. Similarly, marketers are the voice of the consumer; investor relations is the point of contact for the shareholder; research-and-development represents the current limits of science and technology; and futurists convey, well, the future.

These roles are potentially influential, but their ability to drive sustainability may hinge on whether the constituencies they represent are asking for it, though as Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

At the end of the day, there is no one in a company whose primary job is to change the world for the better. The role of any employee is to support his or her company in achieving its mission, which is to provide a good or service that customers want at a price they’re willing to pay.

But with any luck—and the right combination of skills and support—those employees just might make the world a bit better in the process.