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Does it matter if you do sustainability from the top down or bottom up?

I met with the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of a $2 billion company with manufacturing plants all across the world. We were brainstorming about how best to develop and implement a sustainability plan which would lead to coordinated sustainability efforts within the company. The company has a decentralized culture, so implementing mandated efforts from on high was unlikely to be well received.


Several other issues can come into play in challenging a CSO’s ability to implement or coordinate sustainability efforts.

  • The CSO does not have direct P&L responsibility for any units within the company, so they are limited to using influence rather than power.

  • Sustainability leaders at company units may be unwilling to give up control and be overshadowed by corporate efforts.

  • What’s important in one unit may not be important in another.

There is no single way to implement sustainability that would be effective at all companies. However, we can make some general statements on what makes such efforts successful.

  • It IS important to coordinate activities within the firm. Otherwise, the firm loses out on the benefits of shared best practices and economies of scale.

  • Learning can come from anywhere, so it’s important that all avenues for innovation remain open – top-down, bottom-up, and sideways.

  • Plans should be flexible to incorporate learning that comes from throughout the corporation.

  • Local cultures and needs should be respected.

  • CSO’s should exercise influence rather than power, and be comfortable in this role.


It is important to remember that sustainability, like quality control, is a journey rather than a project. Any route is good as long as it gets you there with lowest expenditure of effort, within the specific constraints of the company and its culture.

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