How can we break the language barrier between finance and sustainability?

After attending the WBCSD annual Liaison Delegate meeting in Montreux, Adrian King reflects on the need to bridge the gap between sustainability and finance.

Adrian King is the Global Head of Sustainability Services at KPMG International.

I have spent the last three days at the WBCSD’s Liaison Delegate meeting in Montreux, Switzerland where I rubbed shoulders with around 500 corporate sustainability leaders from all over the world.

I have enjoyed insightful and enlightening discussions, many of them focused on the role of business in achieving the global (SDGs).

Yet as I leave Montreux, I find myself not only inspired by the commitment, ambition and talent I saw, but also slightly troubled; troubled because I believe that the sustainability and finance functions within large companies are still talking largely different languages. And as long as that language barrier persists, sustainability professionals will struggle to achieve the level of influence they ought to have within their organizations.

It is increasingly common for companies to teach their workforces about sustainability. Many forward-thinking organizations provide training for employees on sustainability topics relevant to their particular roles and to the company’s goals, strategy and operations.

However, how many companies are making a similar investment in training their sustainability teams in issues of business and finance?

In my view, the ultimate aim of corporate sustainability professionals is to help the organization make better business decisions by factoring relevant environmental and social information into the decision-making process.

If sustainability professionals are to have genuine clout within the organization, then they need a good understanding of how those business decisions are made. They need to translate sustainability with confidence into the language spoken by operations and finance and make it relevant to decisions on strategy and investment.

Of course, important initiatives are underway. The integrated reporting movement, the FSB’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and the WBCSD’s Redefining Value program are all examples of attempts to bridge the gap between sustainability and finance.

Yet, in my experience, while most sustainability professionals have an impressive knowledge of sustainability issues, not enough have hands-on experience beyond sustainability in operational roles within the company.

So I wonder whether companies are missing an opportunity here. If it were routine practice for sustainability professionals to undertake placements in operational and financial functions as part of their training, would that help to break down the language barrier?

If more sustainability professionals had spent time in the shoes of the people they are trying to influence, would they communicate differently and would that help them to increase their influence?

I’m interested in views on this topic from professionals both within and outside sustainability. And, if you know of any companies that are already proactive in providing their sustainability teams with hands-on operational experience in the business, then I would be keen to hear more.

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Image Source: Andreas Lehner/Flickr