The Sustainability Insurgency: Missives from the Front Lines, Part 1

The first in a periodic series of interviews with executives from the trenches of the Sustainability Insurgency, reinventing CSR and sustainability leadership.

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Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
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For our two-part post, I spoke with Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions at the California-based Autodesk.

In 2008, after a career as an outside environmental consultant with BSR, Emma Stewart went “in-house” to become head of sustainability solutions at the software company Autodesk, where she founded the Sustainability Solutions team. One of her first acts was to reach out to the head of operations — an encounter that Stewart admits was “a little bit awkward.”

The chill she found is a common legacy of the traditional approach to CSR management, with its primacy on keeping external stakeholders happy. Like many companies, Autodesk had responded to stakeholder’s climate concerns by calculating their carbon footprint. In compiling a footprint, the CSR office needs detailed information from managers who usually don’t have it at their fingertips, and for whom such data can be a Herculean task to gather.

So it’s no surprise that when Stewart first encountered the head of operations, the response was, “This seems to be mostly a one-way relationship. What are you doing for my team?”

The encounter was transformational for Stewart’s approach to business sustainability. Instead of asking for things and cajoling her colleagues, Stewart decided to put sustainability in service of the business. According to Stewart, “Nudging alone does not work. If you … take the time to roll up your sleeves and show that something is feasible … and bring that back to the team, you have a much higher likelihood for success. And a lot more respect.”

Typical of the new generation of sustainability insurgents, Stewart found “that in order to be a legitimized contributor to the business, you have to be as smart or smarter about your customers or other stakeholders as other business units. If you make yourself indispensable … then whether or not you’re advancing sustainability… they want you in the meetings. And they want to give you some decision-making sway.”

Relate Externally: Gathering Social Intelligence

Being as smart or smarter requires gathering social intelligence, which Stewart made a priority. She and her team systematically called on leading customers and “market-shapers” like regulators, non-profits and financiers active in establishing their industry’s sustainability standards. As such, her team built a deep understanding of broader social and market context — social intelligence that they could translate back into the business.

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Topics

Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
See All Articles in This Section

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