Santiago Gowland has never placed too much stock on job descriptions: his instinct is to “change and fix”, not toe the line.
Luckily, he has spent much of his career working in corporate sustainability, a dynamic field in which words such as “transformation” and “disruption” are commonplace.
Gowland, who was born in Argentina, is part of an emerging cadre of sustainability professionals who are pushing the boundaries of traditional roles and collaborating across sectors to bring about change.
As the work of corporate sustainability grows in scope, so too does the profile of its practitioners. While core functions such as finance and marketing remain, soft skills such as collaboration and resilience are becoming equally important.
Gowland began his career as a lawyer and investment banker, but found he needed more fulfilment. “I’ve always had a deep need to create an impact in this short life we have,” says the 50-year-old, who was this spring appointed chief executive of Rainforest Alliance, an environment charity.
He took his first role in corporate sustainability at Unilever, where he helped to weave sustainability into the company’s brand and innovation proposition. After almost seven years there, he took on similar roles at Nike and Estée Lauder.
Then, in 2017 he moved into the conservation sector, first as innovation lead at The Nature Conservancy and now at Rainforest Alliance.
The corporate sustainability function has witnessed a three-stage evolution over the past decade or so, argues Gowland.
What began with a narrow preoccupation about non-financial compliance then branched out into a focus on business strategy and integration. Now, it is concerned with systems-level solutions.
“This third wave kicks in once you have transformed your own company because, ultimately, that is still just a drop in the ocean,” says Gowland. “For real change, you need to transform whole markets.”
He cites the negative impact of the raw materials used in manufacturing — from the water used to grow cotton to the energy consumed in producing plastic — as an example. No single company can solve such systemic challenges, he says.
So in 2013, Nike, Nasa, the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development banded together, through their strategic partnership, to accelerate innovation around the sustainability of materials and their production.
Business education is responding to this more collaborative and systems-level approach to corporate sustainability, says Lindsay Hooper, executive director of education at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership.
Core management competencies such as finance, marketing and communications will always be important for anyone working in corporate sustainability, she says. But executive courses are now expanding.
“A lot of our work is now around how to create effective collaboration, as well as adding value in a way that is not just window dressing,” Hooper adds.
Listening skills are important, she says. A common failure of corporate executives is to make “casual assumptions” about those outside business, which hampers cross-sector participation, she notes.
It also takes time and experience to identify why different organisations want to collaborate and what specific value each brings, Hooper adds.
This takes “multilingualism”, argues Jeremy Oppenheim, co-founder of Systemiq, a systems-change advisory firm and investment fund focused on sustainability.
It is “rare” to find sustainability professionals who can really empathise with professionals who work in public policy, private finance or civic activism, he reflects.
“Many of the real sustainability innovations stem from the ability to bring together these separate worlds and that is a skillset that we do not find large numbers of people possessing,” says Oppenheim.
He gives the example of applying “blended finance” — an approach that seeks to use public and philanthropic capital to stimulate private investment in sustainable development — to global agriculture. The idea for this as a means to create a more resilient, lower-carbon food system, arose from a 50-member coalition co-ordinated by Systemiq.
Systems thinking is conceptually complex and technically demanding. The Blended Finance Taskforce’s food proposals, for example, cover everything from modernising development finance to creating science-based impact metrics.
Yet soft skills — such as vulnerability, emotional intelligence, empathy, patience and mood management — are just as important for corporate sustainability professionals.
Indeed, vulnerability is a precondition of embarking into the unknown, which is what any serious attempt at system change inevitably entails, says Sally Uren, chief executive Forum for the Future, a non-profit that promotes sustainability.
“Not having all the answers is actually a good thing because it means you can discover them with other actors in a system and create solutions together,” she adds.
Resilience is another attribute high on her list. Entrenched interests ensure that systems do not transform easily. “Personal resilience is really important because this is hard and slow,” says Uren. “Plus, you can’t just quit. Well, you could, but it won’t get you anywhere.”
Despite the growing trend towards cross-sectoral collaboration, Rainforest Alliance’s Gowland remains rare in leaving the corporate sector entirely. Many of his corporate sustainability peers are joining business-led multi-stakeholder initiatives to try to bring about system-level change.
Acre, a sustainability recruitment firm, has recently placed senior executives in a host of such organisations — from the Responsible Jewellery Council to the Sustainable Biomass Program and the Bettercoal initiative.
“Such individuals have to have a very long-term view on where their sector is going, and they’ve also got to want to take not just their own organisation but all of their sector with them,” says Richard Wright, Acre’s chief executive.
Not all are necessarily sustainability subject experts, he notes. Indeed, many of the best candidates often have a background in corporate affairs, given their inherent skills in communication, negotiation and advocacy.
Art of change
But the art of systemic change is not the preserve of the corporate sustainability function alone. All decision makers in a business must understand where and how they influence the wider system in which they operate — and act accordingly — to effect change.
Steven Day, co-founder of the renewable energy provider Pure Planet and a recent graduate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership’s masters programme, gives the examples of the green energy debate in the UK.
This has historically focused on electricity, he notes. While this has been a boon for Pure Planet’s business, it neglects emissions linked to natural gas, which is still used to heat more than four in five UK homes.
With the transition of the wider energy sector in mind, Pure Planet offered to carbon offset all its gas sales for no extra charge.
“It gives us a product differential, but it actually provides a good greater than that, which is the ability to have conversations with our customers and generally widen the debate about this,” Day explains.
The entrepreneurial environmentalist in Gowland enjoys the fact that his “customers” these days are tropical forests and the communities that depend on them. Corporate sustainability is muddier in this regard: whether systems change or not, companies “still need to sell shoes”.
An awareness of this makes Gowland equipped for the road ahead. Systems will only change by first acknowledging that different viewpoints exist – then applying the skills to make progress happen.