Special Reports
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

Corporate sustainability is about thinking outside the box-ticking

It is rapidly evolving from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’, but what exactly is corporate sustainability?

Corporate sustainability, where companies implement sustainable measures at the core of their business, is rapidly growing in scale and scope. However, what it really means is a bit of a grey area, given that it can run the gamut from recycling to equal rights. To understand more about the concept and what impact it is has in practice, we spoke to some experts.

Environmental, social and governance

It’s whatever you want it to be, Marie Gillespie, director and senior equity analyst at Davy, says of corporate sustainability. “Broadly speaking, it is companies looking at more sustainable measures moving forward. A number of terminologies are used which can make it confusing but generally they’re speaking about environmental issues such as reducing a company’s carbon footprint; social issues, which include things like employment standards, health and safety, and equal rights; and then governance, which is how the board is structured, how balanced it is, how independent it is, and how independent the auditors are.”

‘Chief influencer or sense-maker’

Just as corporate sustainability is relative newcomer to companies’ priority lists, so too is the role of a corporate sustainability officer. “It’s a fairly new role,” says Marc Aboud, a director focused on sustainability risk and regulation at Deloitte. “It’s a role that’s really only emerged over the last two years. It’s a role that’s almost like a chief influencer or sense-maker in an organisation when it comes to sustainability matters. Sustainability traditionally has landed in the HR dept but is becoming a lot more embedded into the bones of an organisation and this means it needs to be a senior individual in the role.”

A sustainability officer, Aboud says, will be a senior individual “who either reports to or is on the C Suite” – that is, the company’s executive level – “and who needs to make sense of the external environment and bring that insight into the firm”. The individual “needs to help the organisation reconfigure their strategy and how they engage the organisation on the topic, and how they educate the staff and wider stakeholders,” he explains.


Why do companies need corporate sustainability officers?

Aisling McNiffe, senior executive at Financial Services Ireland (FSI), Ibec, says the benefit to companies of appointing a corporate sustainability officer is that their consumers and stakeholders will be happier. “We’re seeing shareholders are also demanding corporate sustainability measures because they know it’s the right thing to do and better for the common good,” says McNiffe. “It helps future-proof the business and jobs.”

More than just a ‘nice to have’, corporate sustainability is quickly becoming a ‘must-have’ says McNiffe. “There is a tsunami of regulations coming up, whether it’s from the EU or local government.” She says it doesn’t make sense to just do what the regulations demand – it is important to go above and beyond. “When you’re talking about ESG, it’s not just about climate change, it’s also about due diligence, gender balance, diversity, and inclusion. It’s a much broader way of seeing how to do business.”

Gillespie believes that having corporate sustainability at the core of a business will help with talent attraction and retention, particularly of younger people. “The younger generation are particularly motivated to be sustainable.”

Soft skills and passion for the role

As it’s such a new role, there aren’t really any formal qualifications that people need to move into the role, although McNiffe explains that the FSI has established a professional diploma in sustainable finance for compliance professionals – “the world’s first”.

“We saw there was a gap in the market which would help Ireland and Irish people get and keep these good roles in Ireland,” says McNiffe. “Every financial services firm has to have an officer and they’re going to get hit with a wave of new regulations, so this course is to help them interpret and implement these regulations.”

For those not planning on studying but still interested, Aboud says having a scientific background can be helpful but it’s not the most important thing. “What’s more important is the individual needs to really know the organisation and its products and services and what makes them tick. Second, their soft skills are important. They need to be able to influence but also appreciate boundaries. Being able to network and build relationships is also really key. They need to be a good communicator.

“Most importantly, they need to be very passionate about it. They need to be very passionate about it. They need to believe in it as an area.”

Edel Corrigan

Edel Corrigan is a contributor to The Irish Times