CSR shouldn’t grow up

As the sustainability profession matures, it is becoming another essential department in every organisation.

28 September 2012

Quadrant 3 completed

The next phase, proposed by CRG (Corporate Responsibility Group), is to create a professional body that would offer a structured learning framework and career path so that the profession is taken seriously. It is based upon the belief that 'CR practitioners need to have a set of core skills and competencies as well as specialist knowledge'.

But before we all start congratulating each other on our success at having finally made it, we should take a moment to look at what this really means.

Being a new profession, those involved have often moved from other careers. As the recent CR and Sustainability Salary Survey 2012 shows, this means that many of us have gone back to school and are relatively highly educated. We have used our new found skills to develop protocols and indexes, scientific terms and buzzwords. We have created sustainability strategies filled with aspiration, and have been proud of our engagement with stakeholders and reductions in emissions and resource use.

The problem is that even with all of our efforts, sustainability is still seen by many as a cost and a hindrance to realising business objectives. And it is this that is the fundamental issue we have been missing: sustainability, by definition, needs to be integrated into all decision making and that means it needs to be the responsibility of everyone. It cannot be left to a growing, qualified elite. Instead of creating a professional body, with specialised skills, we should be empowering everyone to make sustainability decisions. We should be helping organisations create a sustainable business strategy, not providing them with a great sustainable strategy that is not compatible with everyday business.

As for the sustainability professional role, I believe what we offer is as simple as a pair of glasses. A lens that helps others to view things more holistically and challenges preconceived ideas and ways of working. Our strength in doing this does not come from specialism, but from our broad experience - our maverick nature. Of course, we need to be professional in how we engage, but every organisation is facing different challenges.

Sustainability cannot be learnt or follow a single approach, it has to be innovative and react. This is why sustainability is not a destination but a journey - it is impossible to be sustainable. There will always be roles for people who question and innovate, as leaders in our profession do, but a true sign of our success would be that we lose our present titles and stop using the word 'sustainability/CR'.

Coming of age is overrated and, like Peter Pan, I think my colleagues and I offer more by not growing up.


This opinion piece first appeared on the Ethical Performance website.