Sustainability managers are leaving their posts - how are businesses still not getting it?

Trevor Yong, business development director at packing sustainability consultancy Aura, explores why many sustainability professionals are resigning or being made redundant, despite the demand for green jobs increasing.
Trevor Yong
Trevor Yong

Over the past four years, demand for ‘green jobs’ has increased by a staggering 667%, with 23% of businesses actively expanding their workforce with green roles in sustainability management, engineering and consulting. So you’d think the sector was thriving, but a chat with a sustainability lead last week brought my attention to an emerging trend that reveals quite the reverse.

My contact (who, yes, shall remain nameless) has a stellar track record. She’s implemented a range of process improvements at her organisation’s distribution centres in 2023. These projects have dramatically increased the speed of the business’s fulfilment process whilst simultaneously reducing the amount of packaging it used. 

Add in the knock-on effects of the environmental impact of utilising less packaging (both in manufacturing and in distribution) as well as the resource and energy improvements by adopting more efficient processes, and that’s a lot of money going back to the business’s bottom line. 

And yet my contact still lost her job, the victim of a cost-cutting exercise.

A quick scan through LinkedIn shows she’s not alone: there are a growing number of people with a sustainability function that are either being laid off, or perhaps more worryingly, voluntarily resigning from their posts. So what’s happening here?

To me, there are two concurrent and equally harmful forces at play here. And both are because businesses are downplaying the impact sustainability professionals make to the bottom line. 

First, when it comes to redundancies, the clear message is that businesses are trying to save money by axing roles that aren’t traditionally seen as revenue generating. The discipline is still too new within organisations for them to attribute any value to it, and you could argue that it makes sense in such a globally volatile economic environment.

Actually, this is incredibly short-sighted, and highlights the immense challenge many in the sustainability community face: how to demonstrate your worth (and within this context, read financial benefit) to the business? Sustainability roles are all too often seen as a burden, a cost, and so one of the first to go when the annual financials are reviewed and profits are down.   

But it’s a misconception that “sustainability doesn’t make money”. The simple truth is that delivering sustainable solutions has been proven to increase related process profits by 60% (that figure is staggering. Re-read it!). I’ve seen it happen first hand, repeatedly, and it continues to be the case. 

Add the coming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations into the mix, of which more below, and you could argue that the sums at stake could take a significant sum off the bottom line. 

So let’s move on to those who are resigning, where it’s a more complex situation. Of course there are some leaving for pastures new. But there’s also a growing feeling that sustainability isn’t as much of a priority by the business as a whole as it would like to believe, and therefore, they’re not being fully supported. 

While this is based on anecdotal evidence from my own network, corroboration comes from Bloomberg Law which found that mentions of ESG reports from S&P 500 companies have fallen by 30% since their peak in 2021. In short, sustainability is becoming less important to the big players - and this is troublesome for many reasons, not least because of what it means for our planet.

All that said, there’s an even more pertinent consideration for these companies that will bring significant pain if they don’t properly invest in their sustainability programmes. Specifically, environmental legislation is increasing faster than most organisations can keep up. 

Since the start of this year, I have received daily bulletins on updates to EPR bills around the world. This legislation requires expertise, monitoring, processes, systems and technology to ensure compliance. The penalties? Well, how long is a piece of string? 

It’s more productive to focus on the opportunities - and they’re far greater than you think. With 50% of Gen-Z purchases being influenced by the sustainability of products and over 60% of families making conscious decisions to minimise single use plastic, it’s a business imperative for consumer-facing organisations to make their products and packs more sustainable.

So for those businesses that are seeing sustainability, and the people that are business experts in it, as cost centres, it’s time for a rethink. Undoubtedly it’s tempting to feel there are bigger priorities right now; but that’s short-termist. Look into the not-too-distant future and at stake are revenue, profit and brand loyalty.

Written by
Trevor Yong
Consultant, Aura
March 14, 2024