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Who’s In Charge of Sustainability at Your Favorite Brand?

Inside the job that balances environmental responsibility with corporate concerns.

Sustainability in business is a hazy matter, in part because the word itself isn't terribly specific. Are we talking about installing energy efficient lightbulbs or keeping the company’s finances humming healthily for years and years to come?

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For today, we're talking about the former: the environmental sort of sustainability. In recent years, major apparel brands like H&M, Kering, Adidas, and Nike have made a big deal of the strides they've made in this area, marketing "green" collections and publishing long sustainability reports to lay out their goals and log their annual progress. They've installed leadership to take the reins on this effort, too, often giving them the attention-grabbing title of Chief Sustainability Officer.

Despite the visibility of these companies' efforts to reduce their footprints, or at least to make it look like they're doing so, the mechanisms of sustainable business are far from self-evident, which makes it a lot harder to discern which companies are doing right by the planet and which aren't.

Photo: John Lamparski/GettyImages

In the interest of working through the murk — and in honor of Black Friday, the highest high holiday of consumerism in the US and the truest antithesis of a sustainable lifestyle — we're taking a look at what Chief Sustainability Officers do, how they fit into larger company structures, and what they can realistically accomplish.

What is a Chief Sustainability Officer?

The first thing to know about the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is that it's not a standard title across the apparel industry in the way that Chief Executive Officer is. Nike has a CSO, Hannah Jones, who reports to the CEO and the President of Innovation. Adidas has a Global Director of Social and Environmental Affairs, Frank Henke, who manages a 70-person team around the world and reports to the General Counsel and, in turn, the CEO. H&M has a Head of Sustainability, Anna Gedde.

Robert Strand, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, studies the emergence of CSOs and says that it can be difficult to pin down who fills that role at different companies because it might be designated by a host of related terms, like "corporate social responsibility" or "corporate citizenship." Case in point: Nike first created a VP of Corporate Responsibility position in 1998, before renaming it a few times and ultimately landing on Chief Sustainability Officer in 2014.

Reformation's final product, the Gemma dress. Photo: Reformation

The job isn't uniform across the industry simply because it's incredibly new. Strand says the CSO role started popping up in the last decade, and even then, mainly in the last five years.

So what does sustainability leadership actually do? For Kathleen Talbot, the head of sustainability and business operations at Reformation, reducing the young brand's impact on the planet means getting into the nitty gritty of every aspect of the business to find opportunities to be more efficient or do things differently. The projects she leads are as varied as mapping Reformation's chemistry supply chain — identifying the thousands of components in the fabric dyes the brand uses in order to figure out how to reduce pollution — and building a RefScale calculator to quantify the water used and CO2 produced in the making of a garment. Her team is working on a similar calculator for stores.

"If you don't measure it, you can't fix it," Talbot explains. Acting as a sort of sustainability accountant is so important that she recently hired an analyst to handle the numbers full-time. She's now looking to bring on a sustainability communications manager, who will help customers understand the full scope of Reformation's work in this area, and someone to fill a social and environmental compliance role.

As Talbot's intimacy with Reformation's overall business indicates, sustainability isn't just about the planet. "At its foundation, the concept of corporate sustainability involves corporations' taking into consideration their environmental and social impacts in concert with their economic objectives," Strand writes in a 2013 research paper titled "Strategic Leadership of Corporate Sustainability." This means that a CSO is less of a lone environmental warrior, or police officer, and more of a team member who's working toward the same financial goals as everyone else.

Sustainability has its sexier applications, too, which are usually the ones making the news. In an email, Nike's Hannah Jones calls out her employer's super lightweight Flyknit sneakers, the fruits of a design challenge to create a high-performance shoe with as little waste as possible. (The model wound up cutting waste by 60 percent.) Her team is currently looking into business models that can keep materials in play through recycling. A T-shirt could become another shirt, then a shoe, then another shoe. That's a somewhat more distant and difficult goal, though.

Nike's Flyknit sneaker. Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

"This will take massive system change across our entire industry because efficiency alone won't get us there," Jones writes.

How do they work with the rest of the company?

In many ways, Talbot is lucky that Reformation is a small, privately held company that was even smaller when she joined. She says that founder and CEO Yael Aflalo made it clear that she wanted her to be in the field making business operations decisions, rather than simply monitoring others' work. First that meant managing Reformation's facilities on the day-to-day and setting them up for efficiency, then moving on to work in the product space on sourcing fabrics.

Because Reformation was so small and structurally flat at the beginning, it was possible for Talbot to work like this — she was simply an operations manager who also had the explicit responsibility to make the company as sustainable as possible.

Photo: Zheng Peng/Getty Images

At a larger company that was not founded with an eye toward the environment, a CSO might not have the same level of authority.

"CSOs almost always have very, very small teams and oftentimes comparatively limited resources where they must typically work across the organization to implement their change initiatives," Strand writes in an email. "This means they must be very effective at influencing others without formal ‘hard power' as the people with whom they are working almost never report to the CSO."

It helps if a company trains every employee to act with sustainability in mind. Patagonia, famously, is one such place. "Because of our mission statement, it's a part of everybody's job," says Lisa Pike, the California-based brand's VP of environmental activism. That mission statement — "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis" — is also carved onto a wooden plaque that hangs above the door of the cafeteria in Patagonia headquarters, keeping it top of mind for anyone going for a snack.

Patagonia encourages (and funds) its employees to leave for up to two months to intern with the environmental group of their choice, Pike says, and has a longstanding tradition of donating one percent of sales to grassroots organizations on the front lines of protecting the air, soil, and water and that work on climate change, sustainable agriculture, and alternative energy. Patagonia staffers can volunteer to be on groups that review proposals to get that money out the door.

Though the company has an environmental and social responsibility department, everyone is effectively a member of that team.

The limitations of the job

In many ways, Patagonia is a unicorn. It's also a private company, meaning it doesn't have the same mandate to demonstrate year-over-year growth that publicly traded corporations like H&M and Nike have. Those companies, particularly the fast fashion brands that operate at massive scale around the world and boast super low prices, are of course the ones that most need to run efficiently and sustainably, while creating mechanisms for recycling their clothing.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But economics come first, and that can put a damper on the environmental and social wings of the so-called "triple bottom line."

"Brands still want to turn a profit and all of these wonderful things that sustainability officers want to implement cost money. The margins on environmentally-conscious materials and processing aren't as high as the margins on conventional materials," Lyndsay McGregor, a senior editor at Sourcing Journal, writes in an email. "And consumers don't seem willing to pay a little extra for something that's sustainable. So if brands can't pass on some of that additional cost, they're less likely to be enthusiastic about making big changes until consumers start demanding that they do so."

Strand has found that a company's overall culture might make it more or less open to making changes toward sustainability.

"The companies that tend to be the most receptive to suggestions for change are often those that promote a 'culture of candor,' openness, cooperation, and a healthy degree of humility. In such companies, individuals embrace the airing of unresolved problems and potentially looming challenges," Strand writes in an email. "It can often be the CSO identifying many of these problems and challenges and bringing them into the organization to address."

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