To whom should the VP of Sustainability report?

Ante scriptum for those companies without a VP of Sustainability yet (those who already do may pass this paragraph): If you don’t have an in-house VP of Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility Manager yet, then start thinking about it. True, the most socially responsible corporations are probably those in which values of respect of the 3 ‘P’s (People, Profit, Planet) are so digged deep inside that everyone in the company is her own VP of Sustainability. But this vision is highly hypothetical: try and name 3 companies without a VP of Marketing despite the fact that good marketing is key to understanding one’s customers needs and delivering the right service at the right time. Tricky? Sure it is. Good marketing is key to building a sustainable company and there are still VP of Marketing. So is corporate social responsiblity: a necessary commitment to take your organization to the next level. Mmm you might need someone accountable for Sustainability then. A committed lieutenant that will provide the strategic map, plan, do, and check.

To avoid going straight to the point (at first sight), this ongoing debate around reportees and reports has been going on for like centuries, about internal auditors (to the CFO or the CEO? Schools tell you CEO or Board member in charge of compliance rather than CFO to keep a check-and-balance structure), for CIOs (to CFO or CEO?), for VP of HR or Talent Acquisition (now commonly reporting to CEOs, but there was a time…), for VP of Quality (reporting to COOs or VP of Products), for VP of Environment, Health and Safety reporting sometimes to VP of HR, sometimes to CFOs (for compliance and risk-management reasons), and most of the time to COOs or CEOs – at least when the activity involves manufacturing and industrial ecosystems.

Well, the debate isn’t so much different with VP of Sustainability, except that sustainability involves everyone inside and outside the organization – unlike, say, internal audit.

Being sustainable, briefly, means less resources consumed, so less costs, better margins, more implication of employees and stakeholder ecosystems, more outside attractivity, from potential hirees as well as customers and partners. In short, a sustainability bears less risks and generates more meaning for everyone at the expense of disposable costs (good riddance!).

Looking at the question from this point of view, then the answer could be that a VP of Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsiblity manager should report to the CEO. The higher, the better.

Though I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a VP of Sustainability reporting to a CFO (compliance, risks & CSR report bias), to a VP of Marketing or CMO (communication bias?), to a COO (environment, health, safety bias), my take is that having a VP of Procurement that also takes on the role of a Vice-President of Sustainability is a handy solution that pleases everyone as a first CSR step. It pleases the executive committee who doesn’t need to welcome someone new that hasn’t proved herself yet; and still, the VP of Sustainability (also the VP of Procurement) sits at the board and is, as VP of Procurement, in charge of a key, hands-on role in the company: the one of saving costs and optimizing resources. This way, Sustainability is no more associated with useless expenses or disconnected from day-to-day business investments, and people realize how time-saving, cost-killing, change-driving, hands-dirtying and champaign-drinking implementing a sustainability policy can be. The next logical step is that the CEO decides there should be a slot dedicated to sustainability reporting to herself, et voilà!