Nancy Hobhouse, head of ESG at Evri, and Tim Mohin, chief sustainability officer at Persefoni, explain the approach required to combine sustainable and corporate.
A recent report from Strategy&, the global strategy consulting team at PwC, analysed more than 1,600 companies to assess the expanding role of the chief sustainability officer (CSO). Companies appointed almost as many CSOs in 2020-21 (394) as in the previous eight years combined (414), but around half of CSOs analysed are ‘two or more’ hierarchy levels below the C-suite (executive-level managers), meaning their influence is limited.
But CSOs, or indeed, any leader of environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives at organisations – can help empower in other ways with the right skillset and approach.
Tim Mohin is chief sustainability officer at Persefoni, a company which provides software to help organisations automate carbon accounting and financial disclosures. The company’s platform is able to codify 107,000 emissions factors. Mohin’s list of previous employers is stellar, from government, to Apple and Intel, to being CEO of the sustainability-focused Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). So why a CSO role now, at a software startup?
“When you think about it, carbon is a data problem,” Mohin tells Sustainable Future News. “There’s no-one chasing after your car with a monitor trying to figure out the emissions. It’s a calculation. So what we’ve done is encoded the whole accounting rules.”
“When I look back at my career, and those 20 years in the private sector, even with [progressive, leading] companies, the tools that we had to do this kind of work were very poor,” he adds. “Even today, many companies are running around with spreadsheets trying to do this very difficult work.”
Reporting and accountability
Mohin admits he is not comfortable unless he has clear objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs), and reports directly to Persefoni’s CEO, Kentaro Kawamori. There are five KPIs to Mohin’s role: brand awareness, carbon disclosure policy, guiding the product, attracting new business – specific to collaborations and partnerships – and, last but not least, internal sustainability strategies.
When Mohin worked for big tech, the latter bucket pretty much defined his entire role. At Persefoni, it is naturally more wide-ranging. “I mean, we’re small, and so you have a blank slate, which is very, very fun,” says Mohin.
Not all roles have a fresh start, however. Nancy Hobhouse is head of ESG at delivery company Evri. She reports to chief transformation officer Fash Sawyerr, but the accountability does not end there. Specific ESG KPIs get reports into Evri’s transformation committee, as well as being reported directly into the company’s supervisory board, which includes the company’s owners, private equity firm Advent.
For Hobhouse, who joined Evri a year ago and whose previous sustainability roles include John Lewis and Barclays, it was a different story.
“I was told before I joined [Evri] there was no ESG strategy. They lied to me, but in a good way,” she tells Sustainable Future News. “In the sense that yes, okay, there was no formalised ESG strategy. But we’re a very action-based business. So I turned up, and all the initiatives that we needed to be started to do environment and social had been in for years.”
These include, on the environment side, low carbon fleet – the company has pledged to be net zero by 2035 for direct and indirect emissions – and greater benefits for self-employed couriers on the social side.
“If you’re going to come in and do one or the other, it’s much easier to come in and put a target in, than have a target and no-one’s done anything about it for years,” says Hobhouse.
Curating the corporate skillset
For Mohin and Hobhouse, the key to corporate sustainability is in the former of the two words. Hobhouse realised early on that her skills were better deployed in this arena, while Mohin felt it was important to be on the inside looking out.
Indeed, this philosophy forms the title of Mohin’s book, ‘Changing Business from the Inside Out’, subtitled ‘A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations.’ “I see business as the dominant social institution of our time,” explains Mohin, who admits for a lifelong environmentalist this statement may be controversial. “I made a choice many years ago that I could be the most effective by working within business, to move the supertanker that is the global economy.”
Hobhouse feels similarly, again volunteering that her view may court controversy. “I think sometimes sustainability people create their own echo chamber around themselves,” she says. “Sustainability isn’t just about purism of sustainability. When I’m looking at my team and the training they’re in, they’re on financial acumen training, IT training… we do other things, like ISO 14001 training and all of that.
“But it’s about being able to build people beyond just sustainability and give them what they need – and I think sometimes we forget that.”
Sometimes you’re defeated – but stay positive
Mohin explains that for a corporate responsibility leader, you are ‘responsible for everything and the authority for almost nothing.’ Executives continue to be more receptive to the sustainability team – but not for everything.
“There are many times that you have the most brilliant idea and it’s, frankly, not supported, or there are other business reasons that push it down. That’s a normal part of the life of the CSO. You’re not running an NGO, you’re running a business, and you have to be willing to retreat at times.
“The two ‘I’s that I always say in my book are ‘influence’ and ‘incrementalism’,” Mohin adds. “That applies more in the big company framework than the startup, for sure. But it’s also here in the startup that we’re trying to win in a highly competitive market. The key focus for any business [is] to be competitive and profitable – so when you overlay sustainability on top of that, it’s not always at the top of the list.”
But the message from both Mohin and Hobhouse is one of positivity for those who want to become CSO or head of ESG in their careers.
“I love my job,” says Hobhouse. “I feel like what I’m doing is making the world a tiny bit better. I know I’m not going to fix the world, but I am making it a tiny bit better by what I do.” Mohin is more circumspect, advising people should ‘read the system’. “You’re in this influential position – but if you don’t understand the system, you don’t understand the ship you’re sailing in,” he says. “So it’s about really understanding that system, that culture, and then applying your skills within it.”
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