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Eco-officers are moving into executive suites

At many companies, sustainability officers are placed in the upper echelons of companies, where they are highly visible. In some cases, the CEO has taken on the extra duty.

December 30, 2009|By Tiffany Hsu
  • Workers install sedum on the roof of a Ford truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., where it will will provide insulation and save rainwater. Ford's sustainability staff works to make the company, as well as its vehicles, greener.
Workers install sedum on the roof of a Ford truck plant in Dearborn, Mich.,… (J. Kyle Keener / Detroit…)

During his more than three decades in real estate David Pogue played many roles, but environmental expert was never one of them.

That didn't stop his company, Los Angeles real estate brokerage CB Richard Ellis, from naming him the company guru of all things eco-friendly nearly two years ago. Pogue suddenly found himself in charge of making the firm and its projects more energy efficient and environmentally conscious, an abrupt switch from his previous property-management responsibilities.

"I'm an outsider, a real estate guy trying to become an environmentalist," said Pogue, the company's national director of sustainability. "But I believe in what I do, that it's something bigger than myself."

As companies grapple with climate change, try to attract eco-conscious customers and develop alternative energy agendas while complying with regulations, a new kind of administrator is moving into the executive suite to help out.

Sustainability officers and green supervisors, some say, are successors to the diversity managers and innovation specialists of the 1990s -- with their focus equal parts corporate responsibility, public relations and profit.

"Our clients expect this," Pogue said. "A company of our size doesn't have the luxury any longer of not participating."

After attending a rigorous series of conferences and cramming in hours of reading on the so-called green industry, Pogue settled into the position. His efforts include connecting CB Richard Ellis with programs such as Energy Star from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, and the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building code.

Positions such as Pogue's often are placed in the upper echelons of companies, where they are highly visible and directly overseen by the chief executive. At Coca-Cola Co. and Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc., chief executives Muhtar Kent and Ryoichi Ueda, respectively, have adopted the sustainability officer title as well.

Other firms bundle in extra duties, such as dealing with the supply chain. At Levi Strauss & Co., Michael Kobori works on labor standards and general green issues as vice president for social and environmental sustainability.

"Ten years ago, the position I have didn't exist," Kobori said. "Now, we are seeing a new generation of business leaders who have grown up with sustainability. There is actually a career path in this field for someone at a corporation."

Last year, fewer than 200 positions dedicated to sustainability were spread among more than 1,200 companies, according to consulting firm Hudson Gain Corp. With a "very limited talent pool of experienced sustainability executives," many firms plucked internal candidates who were well-regarded in other fields for the role, the report said.

In higher education, about 80 positions existed last year, 82% of them full time, according to the Assn. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Salaries ranged from less than $20,000 to nearly $160,000.

Green managers are also springing up in government. President Obama signed an executive order in October requiring federal agencies to each designate a senior sustainability officer.

Some companies, eager to cash in on the eco-enthusiasm, have been accused of hiring sustainability officers who are little more than figureheads. Instead of greening the business plan and inspiring the staff, critics contend, these executives end up isolated, ineffective or overburdened.

"There's a danger in creating a chief sustainability officer, because it places all the responsibility of that issue onto one person," said Kobori of Levi Strauss. "We're successful when sustainability gets embedded in all the roles in the company."

Kobori said he works with cotton farmers, fabric mills, factories, shipping lines, retail stores and consumers. His team's efforts have raised water quality standards so that the wastewater pumped out of partner factories in China and Mexico is sometimes cleaner than the water going in, he said.

Care tags on many jeans, some of which feature blended organic cotton and recycled denim, promote energy-saving cold water for washing and clotheslines for drying.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its current locations by 20% by 2012 and send no waste to U.S. landfills by 2025, said Matt Kistler, the retailer's senior vice president of sustainability. At a sustainability forum last month, he discussed plans to offer locally grown produce, use certified fisheries and track the diamonds, gold and silver used in the chain's jewelry.

Among other things, Wal-Mart is using energy saving light-emitting diodes in many of its refrigerated and frozen-food cases.

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