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Sustainability professionals must shift from an ‘activist’ to a collaborative mindset with the C-Suite

“We need to rewrite the story of Robin Hood, where he remains very much part of the King’s courtrooms while using his influence to shine light on how prosperity can be multiplied by doing good for the subjects.”

Jaison John is a sustainability specialist with 13 years of experience that includes ESG integration, Climate Change Research, Sustainable Finance, and Corporate Responsibility. His work spans industry, consulting, policy making, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. Having lived and worked across the UK, Middle East, Asia, and Africa, his background revolves around formulating and executing strategy and sustainability initiatives for clients from both the public and private sectors. He is a sustainability tutor at Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

How did you become a sustainability professional?

I got introduced to the field of sustainability purely by chance in 2011. During this time, I had decided to make a career shift from the aviation sector to consulting. One of the very first clients I worked with was a waste management company. Initially, I was tasked with assisting the CFO on revisiting the company’s strategy, by preparing market reports as to how the company could improve its operations and thereby increase revenues. A few months into the engagement, it became apparent to me that the challenge at hand was more a Sustainability issue than a Strategy challenge. So, in my quest to gain some formal understanding of the subject, I came across the programme at CISL, and I was particularly drawn to it because of its strong industry orientation and the flexibility it allowed me to keep my day job as a consultant. 

What was your experience pursuing a master’s on Strategy, Sustainability and Leadership Development at the University of Cambridge? How did the insights and perspectives impact your work?

My CISL experience was life-changing, to say the least, as during the programme I was able to understand the subject from various perspectives, and the critical need to look at sustainability from various angles. Today, I see a lot of professionals stepping into sustainability services with a skewed viewpoint, which is fully understandable given their experience and expertise but to drive real impact, it is extremely important for sustainability professionals to look at a given topic from multiple perspectives. This is something an academic setting can effectively provide, where you could have people from diverse backgrounds come together to understand and solve a common problem. This provides a safe setting for people to firstly express their concerns, secondly explain their approach to a particular problem and finally constructively critique an idea with the common objective to find the best possible solution to a sustainability challenge. For me, the programme helped me understand the business case for sustainability for my target industry, and it helped me translate the same into a language that made financial sense for my client stakeholders. 

it is extremely important for sustainability professionals to look at a given topic from multiple perspectives. This is something an academic setting can effectively provide, where you could have people from diverse backgrounds come together to understand and solve a common problem.

You have very diverse and rich experience promoting and advising on sustainability for many different organisations. Tell us about the milestones in your career and where do you think there is more potential for leading climate progress?

Well in the last 13 years, I have had a few milestones that were significant in helping me reach where I am today. The first one would be when I decided to leave the aviation industry, and step into consulting. The second would be the decision to formally study sustainability, which was not a popular choice back then and the third would be the circumstances that led me to venture on my own as a sustainability consultant and build a practice focusing on sustainability and ESG. During this period, I have worked on several strategic and transformative initiatives, for example, I conducted a study on the waste management models of the 3 largest city municipalities of an Arab state, where my research findings were used to validate a policy change, to encourage public-private partnerships in the sector.

To answer your second question, I believe the potential for leading climate progress lies with both governments and businesses, specifically the financial institutions. Globally we see financial institutions are now leading the sustainability debate and setting future targets. They are increasingly directing the investment flows towards industries with higher ESG disclosures. This is pushing companies to align themselves with climate change targets and accordingly optimise operations to reduce the cost of capital.

Globally we see financial institutions are now leading the sustainability debate and setting the future targets. They are increasingly directing the investment flows towards industries with higher ESG disclosures.

What evolution have you witnessed in terms of sustainability interest, focus and savviness from the corporate world in the last 13 years?

Starting early on in sustainability, I have witnessed the transition of both the businesses and media’s interest in sustainability. I saw the terminologies and expressions around it, shift from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to Sustainability Strategy to now ESG. CSR was related to brand reputation and philanthropy, then came the UN SDGs and Agenda 2030, making sustainability mainstream for governments primarily and to some degree the private sector. ESG has emerged in the last 2 years, thanks to large financial institutions like Blackrock, who are demanding non-financial metrics and reliable, comparable data to evaluate risks.  At the start of my career, sustainability initiatives as we know it today, never existed within organisations. However, in the past 5 to 7 years there has been a rapid progression and traction in sustainability topics such as climate change, transparency, diversity, inclusion etc. I believe there are several factors that come into play in shaping this discourse, the most significant of which is the financial institutions’ (investors) realisation of the material risks that could potentially affect the long-term financial performances of businesses. To add to this momentum, we have had several global social movements, and most recently the pandemic that has challenged all stakeholders to rethink and revisit business as we know it. 

Do you see a difference in the level of awareness towards sustainability in the different regions you have worked in? Do you have any examples of inspiring transferable best practices?

There has been a substantial growth in awareness across the three continents that I have lived and worked. Companies understand that business strategy must be adjusted to improve business performance and that profit and purpose are linked. The ‘E’ in ESG are fundamentally similar across the regions. The key difference surfaces in ‘S’ and how the ‘G’ (Governance) is addressed, as there are culture and local management styles that come into play. The Middle East where I am based has set some ambitious environmental targets and are making steady progress on social topics such as gender balance. But I would say that each continent has its positives and negatives in this journey and dialogues must be established to foster a nuanced cultural understanding.

You will notice, globally, business leaders and industry professionals are enrolling for short sustainability courses to understand the subject. I have personally had the privilege of working with more than 200 industry professionals through the online Business Sustainability Management course offered by the University of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. The attendees go back to their organisations to design, develop and deploy sustainability initiatives, which is great. However, this can also be a key detriment to implementing sustainability within an organisation, as one cannot fully understand or study sustainability by progressing through a series of modules say in 5 to 8 weeks. So, when an individual who has worked in a particular function is required to quickly transition from his or her core business function to sustainability, there arises a possibility for a skewed viewpoint, which I mentioned earlier. However, this can be addressed by having interdisciplinary teams and engaging external expertise on specific topics, say energy management, diversity etc.  

One of the best practices in sustainability, something which I have experienced personally in my career as a Sustainability advisor, is the power of interdisciplinary teams. This not only helps with creating sustainability solutions for organisations but also encourages innovation, simply because we have people coming at the issue from various vantage points. I believe one of the key responsibilities of people holding leadership roles within organisations, especially in sustainability is to nurture such environments. 

One of the key responsibilities of people holding leadership roles within organisations, especially in sustainability is to nurture multidisciplinary environments.

You advise start-ups on sustainability. What are your insights working with start-ups and what are their sustainability specificities, needs and gaps?

Well, the basic needs and gaps faced by start-ups in general, are not linked to sustainability, unless of course, the firm is creating a sustainability-centric service or product offering. For sustainability start-ups, I have seen problems in access to capital from like-minded investors. Start-ups looking to scale rapidly tend to approach venture capital firms that are usually obsessed with growth, and maybe not so much with the sustainability impact. This however is changing, so for sustainability entrepreneurs, the key goal should be to partner with investors who share the same values. 

An insight I have had working with sustainability start-ups in recent years is the creation of strategic partnerships between sustainability entrepreneurs and corporates. This is a variation of corporate venture capital, where a sustainability start-up demonstrates to a large corporate, how their service or product can optimise performance, improve revenues etc for the business. Such partnerships push the boundaries of innovation and could even create an industry coalition that accelerates sustainable development.

What are the key sustainability trends you see in sustainability and what companies need to be aware of and start preparing for?

There are several, of which I will highlight a few. At present, one of the key trends globally is the rise of ESG disclosures. With the big announcement by IFRS Foundation on the official launch of the  International Sustainability  Standards Board  (ISSB), a major step has been taken towards a global, consistent, and comparable sustainability disclosures. One of the biggest areas of concern for both critics and propagators of ESG was the lack of consistency in reporting standards. Now ISSB can work towards creating a robust set of industry standards by leveraging the inputs and support from IASB,  CDSB, Value Reporting Foundation and SASB.

EU taxonomy is also playing a critical role in global ESG metrics adoption. Significantly,  Blackrock  was consulted directly by the EU to draft the EU Taxonomy. Upon completion of this exercise, I am certain other parts of the globe will use this as a reference and starting point to define and tailor their own taxonomy and sustainability initiatives. The world has shrunk, so companies looking for funding must be globally compliant.  In the next few years, we will see corporates lay a strong emphasis on integrating ESG metrics into their core business functions to meet these prescribed ESG standards. This is going to become the new norm and professionals will have to gain expertise in relevant ESG topics that affect their respective functions. 

It should not come as a surprise that in 10-15 years, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) will emerge on par with the CFO, in terms of influence and impact within a company.  We can liken this to the advent of IT, wherein today it is impossible for any business function to separate itself from IT, be it professionals in finance, human resources, marketing, operations, or procurement, all are required to have a depth of IT understanding based on their core deliverables. Another area that companies will need to get better at is the climate change target setting. We have witnessed ambitious net-zero targets that have been set by countries and companies alike in the past few days at COP-26, however, we have enough studies that show very few have set these targets based on scientific inputs. For example, according to a recent report by Arabesque, almost half of FTSE 100 companies have no net-zero target in the UK. The research found that 45 companies on Britain’s FTSE-100 Index have no net-zero target and only 23 companies have set net-zero targets meeting scientifically approved standards of The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which defines best practices in such targets. 

In the next few years, we will see corporates lay a strong emphasis on integrating ESG metrics into their core business functions to meet these prescribed ESG standards. This is going to become the new norm and professionals will have to gain expertise in relevant ESG topics that affect their respective functions.

What opportunities and risks do you foresee in this space for companies and corporations?

Well, the opportunity and the risk are interrelated. A business can effectively identify the material risks it faces under ESG and take adequate steps to mitigate them. There is an opportunity for businesses to be sustainability leaders by integrating ESG into their strategy and operating models. Further, there also exists great potential for organisations to challenge the status quo and catalyse innovation, which is made possible when an organisation begins to use sustainability as part of its core strategy. Here it is important to note that the truly successful companies in any given sector today are the ones who are constantly reinventing themselves, so ESG can further act as a complementing force to redesign the company’s business strategy. 

What advice would you give to corporations willing to start the sustainability journey and become responsible agents of change?

I would advise to not get carried away by the media clutter. We have today major brands announce bold targets with very limited understanding of how these targets can be achieved. There is a lot of noise around ESG, and businesses spend unwarranted time debating the for and against motions, whereas the highest performance and profitability could be achieved if the focus is on the basics, such as, scientific evidence available around a given topic, credible data within the organisation, identifying material risks for the business and observing how the industry is evolving. 

From my experience, by taking these simple steps, business leaders quickly see that there exists a strong case for sustainability and ESG within its business. You can find more on the slide deck that I use for facilitating such dialogues by clicking here.

What keeps you motivated to continue this sometimes seemingly thankless career of pushing for systemic change to allow for a more sustainable future for all?

Well, it is fulfilling to see incremental changes over a period make a huge impact. I am motivated by the fact that there is a collective push amongst businesses to drive a positive impact.  There is a new sense of openness, especially amongst C-level executives on sustainability issues, and I believe the time is ripe for sustainability professionals to create effective communication and business strategies to drive ESG agendas across the board.  For doing this, sustainability professionals must shift from an ‘activist’ attitude that often views a company board or C-suite as a group of individuals only driven by profits to a collaborative mindset, where we realise that each stakeholder has a key role to play.  I feel we need to rewrite the story of Robin Hood, where in this version, he remains very much part of the King’s courtrooms (and not a rebel) while using his influence to shine light on how prosperity can be multiplied by maintaining harmony and by doing good for the subjects. By attaining this synergy, sustainability professionals can achieve profit and purpose for the people and the planet.

the truly successful companies today are the ones who are constantly reinventing themselves, so ESG can further act as a complementing force to redesign the company’s business strategy.

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