Top-Down Leadership: Why Sustainability Must Start in the C-Suite

Staff-led support for sustainability, while helpful, cannot create long-term change on its own. Impactful corporate sustainability leadership must come from the C-Suite.

Have you ever been a part of a small group that’s created huge results? Perhaps you’ve volunteered for a cause you believe in or taught your young child to use the toilet? Many of us know the feeling when small contributions lead to meaningful outcomes.

Grassroots movements often generate collective pressure for moving the needle on national policy. But this approach isn’t nearly as effective in the workplace.

Challenges of Organizational Change

Like a few ants attempting to budge a coconut, staff-led corporate sustainability initiatives rarely impact company policy on the scale required to enact meaningful, lasting change.

The point being, corporate sustainability leadership must come from the top. The rationale is multifaceted.

Although well-intentioned, staff often lack the decision-making power, insight into broader company strategy, and agency required to enact widespread change. Only executive leadership yields the power to meld sustainability principles into corporate strategy. Only they can make it a company-wide priority.

Many businesses see the importance of sustainability to their employees. You may find staff yearning for corporate sustainability embodied in employee-led “green teams”. Green teams may help plan activities such as trash pick-ups or recycling drives. They can offer staff that sustainability outlet many seek. While helpful, these groups lack the clout required to enact long-term impacts needed at the organizational level.

Too many organizations allow corporate sustainability to ride the whims of a few well-intentioned employees. Like a few inspired ants trying to move that coconut. When internal champions move-on, sustainability efforts often wither or disappear altogether. Like a business unit, program success should never hinge on only a few individuals.

Many business leaders recognize the importance of sustainability but find it difficult to know where to start. And that’s OK. For busy executives, it can be scary to contemplate the change required. Corporate sustainability can appear a daunting elephant in the room for many. We understand, it’s scary out there!

Starting is Easy: Signal Intention

At this step, the only requisite for business leaders to start the journey is signaling an interest in sustainability.

To make things easier, consider shifting the mindset. Frame sustainability as an opportunity rather than a threat. Many business leaders errantly associate sustainability with increased costs. Approach the idea of sustainability with an open mind. These are the only necessary prerequisites to get started.

So, what are some useful steps to set the sails for a journey towards sustainability? So great you should ask! Check out the next post for suggestions to get started.

You just read article number two in a ten-part series on starting corporate sustainability. To start from the beginning, check-out the first article in the series. For the entire picture, download the full publication titled Nine Beacons to Chart Your Business Towards a Sustainable Future.

Are you interested in integrating sustainability into your business? Contact Solutions in Sustainability today to share your long-term sustainability goals. We’d enjoy discussing which Solutions in Sustainability may be right for you.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at

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