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Sustainability & Social Responsibility

Q&A: The State of Green Leadership


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

November/December 2010, eSide Supply Management Vol. 3, No. 6

One expert goes in-depth on the chief sustainability officer (CSO) role — who's doing it now, how to lay the groundwork to get it in the future and whether or not supply managers have an edge.

Despite a shaky economy, not all companies are putting sustainability initiatives on the back burner. In fact, many are even more aggressively pursuing green business initiatives than before — not just as a response to increased customer demands, but also to save money.

Of course, someone has to get the green ball rolling. That's where the supply management and green leadership expertise of John Davies, vice president of Greener World Media in Oakland, California, comes in.

GreenBiz Group is an integrated media and information services company focused on supporting professionals who view sustainable practices as a means for business success.

eSide asked Davies how prevalent the chief sustainability officer (CSO) role really is right now. We also wanted to know who's being tapped to do this job most often, how to lay the groundwork for a transition into this position and whether or not supply management professionals really have an edge over the competition in securing the CSO title.

eSide: You recently returned from a meeting with 40 sustainability leaders. How many of them are doing this job full-time?

John Davies
John Davies

John Davies: The group is called the Green Biz Executives Network. It's a member-based, peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability professionals. Because [Green Biz's] goal is to define and accelerate the business of sustainability, this network is composed of people who have that responsibility in their companies. It's a group of professionals whose full-time jobs are devoted to developing sustainability strategies and frameworks in their organizations.

But, the rise of the sustainability leadership role has been very different than that of the chief information officer or chief supply officer function. Sustainability leaders aren't building big organizations; they do what they do by leveraging everyone else in the company.

So, to complement in-person meetings — like the one I just returned from — our company also hosts a number of interactive teleconferences. Each is focused on a specific functional area within a company, such as purchasing/procurement or IT. That way, our network members can invite people from those functions in their companies to be in on the call. During that time, we describe what the greening trends are in their particular areas of the business.

eSide: Among the meeting attendees, were they mostly supply chain professionals? Or, did they come from other departments, too?

Davies: It's interesting. So much of who's appointed the first sustainability leader depends on a company's culture. Some come from marketing, and others come from supply chain. It really depends on the company.

eSide: Is the logical choice for the green leader role someone who's passionate about sustainability?

Davies: Sometimes, but I'm not sure it's a necessity. For example, when deciding on the first person to fill that role in a company, time spent with that company can be a very important consideration. A person who has been there a while will know everyone and can leverage his or her credibility within the company. Then again, I've seen other companies, like Campbell's Soup and Avon, bring in outsiders. These people have been successful in other industries at implementing sustainability programs. So, they come from all different perspectives.

For many companies, it's really about saving money. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, has clearly stated that sustainability efforts at his company are about money and strategy. Its' a good thing to do, he says, but he's publicly declared many times that he's not a camper. [laughs]

eSide: You mentioned your background is in supply chain. Can you tell us more about that?

Davies: Well, my real focus was on being a supplier — I founded a supply chain software company back in 1985. For more than 18 years, I helped big companies implement warehouse management, inventory control and logistics solutions.

eSide: So, how crucial was your familiarity with supply management to securing your current position as vice president of Greener World Media?

Davies: Well, when we talk about green/sustainability, supply chain is an area where many companies can have their biggest impact. If you approach sustainability in terms of the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, a company's supply chain practices impacts all three areas.

My supply management background has enabled me to approach this balance from a very business-oriented perspective. That's why I got along so well with the folks at Green Biz. My familiarity with the profession very much guided me in where I see the sustainability movement going. My supply chain background has very much informed my perspective.

eSide: You get a lot of calls from students and professionals seeking advice on how to move into a green leadership role. What do you usually tell them?

Davies: The advice I give everyone is to bring green to their own jobs, or to their functions within their companies. To help out, we provide a lot of free online resources to assist people in jump starting their organizations' green education initiatives.

I also encourage people to volunteer for green team activities. And, if their companies don't have green strategies, I tell them to start working on them. Green projects make money. I think that has to be communicated as the bottom line.

Another trend is evident in a lot of the companies I work with, but it's only anecdotal at the moment because there's no study to back it up yet: It seems the people who are participating in green initiatives at their companies are on faster career tracks than their peers. Many companies are looking at the ability to drive sustainability initiatives as a means of competitive differentiation. If someone can help drive these within the different functions of the workplace, that's a big win.

eSide: What advantages do you think supply management professionals, in particular, have as sustainability leaders?

Davies: I think supply chain professionals are very good problem-solvers. Having been around them most of my professional life, I know that when they come up against a wall, instead of walking away, they figure out some way to get over it, around it or under it. They never just stop. I think that's critical. Supply chain people bring an analytical perspective to the sustainability leadership role.

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. To contact this author, please send an e-mail to

For more social responsibility and sustainability resources, visit the ISM articles database.

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