Changing role of chief sustainability officers

19 Sep 2019
Madhulika Sharma

Sustainability in businesses has moved from a compliance based approach to an impact measurement and mitigation approach

Sustainability business
The approach to sustainability has evolved in companies and businesses who wish to lead by example.

Not very long ago the person at the helm of sustainability in many organisations was the company's face for its limited sustainability agenda and driving its CSR initiatives.

However, more and more organisations today are going from a compliance based approach to an impact measurement and mitigation approach in sustainability. The hectic pace of technology advancement, growing complexity of corporate missions, and the increasingly global connections and communication needs are forcing organisations to delve deep and evolve their long-term business model. The Paris Agreement ushered in a new fervour along with rigour in reporting and the need for transparency. Many guidelines evolved into standards, and across corporate corridors attention to issues such as forced labour, discrimination, migration, and sensitivity to social impact have gained traction.

In line with Tata Steel's vision to become the global steel industry benchmark in value creation and corporate citizenship and to become true sustainability leaders, the company has evolved its approach to sustainability leadership on similar lines.

Sustainability in Tata Steel

The initial approach to sustainability was primarily limited to CSR activities and environmental compliance around consent to operate. With growing understanding of the industry’s impact on the environment and the society, the organisation evolved its lens of approaching the subject. Today, the steel industry accounts for 6-7% of global CO2 emissions, is highly water-intensive, and faces the challenge of dealing with by-products of steel making.

Tata Steel's India operations are concentrated in Jharkhand and Odisha that are considered to be among the most socio-economically backward states of the country with a very low Human Development Index (HDI). Our stakeholders have become more demanding in terms of our community initiatives, environmental impact mitigation, and transparency in disclosures over and above sustained profit making. The organisation was proactive in gauging these and created a separate corporate sustainability function to devise strategies to address these issues.

Chief Sustainability Officer's role

The Chief Sustainability Officer’s role at Tata Steel has advanced to be more strategic than tactical with a better understanding of the business’s impact on people, planet and profit, thereby quantifying, qualifying, and setting up long-term roadmaps. The role is required to evolve over time as the organisation moves on its journey of successfully adopting a sustainability-based business model. Sustainability measures would be expected to progress from being compliance driven to driving efficiencies to innovating for being future ready.

The company has moved on from treating sustainability as a standalone agenda in segregated functions such as supply chain, compliance, environmental health and safety, and government affairs, into a wider business imperative, looking at the entire spectrum of the company's operations and engaging in cross functional teamwork. Going forward, the CSO will be expected to innovate and guide the organisation’s long-term financial decision making, developing alternative business models based on the principles of circular economy and lead the organisation to a future scenario of carbon, water and waste neutrality. As one of the precursors to the exciting times ahead of the company we have also launched a steel recycling business to shape the steel recycling industry in India and leverage opportunities in this space.

Madhulika Sharma is the Chief Corporate Sustainability of Tata Steel Limited

Business sustainability
Corporate social responsibility