In-house has 'big role' to play in corporate sustainability

Corporate sustainability is becoming an increasingly important business goal for organisations.

Consumer-facing companies are building their sustainability strategies around broad, ambitious targets as they seek to overhaul both their products and services and the supply chains used to deliver them.

The 2014 Sustainability Leaders Report by GlobeScan and SustainAbility shows that for the fourth year in a row, Unilever is regarded as the number-one corporate sustainability leader. Some 33 per cent of expert respondents identified the company as a 'leader in integrating sustainability into its business strategy', putting it 24 percentage points ahead of Patagonia in second place.

This drive for sustainability has created a number of specific opportunities, however, especially for in-house legal teams. Research by Bond Dickinson points out these departments can stretch their sphere of influence beyond their traditional remits by making a strategic contribution around corporate sustainability.

With 71 per cent of in-house lawyers admitting the focus placed on this area of policy has had a major or measurable impact on their business operations, it's clear the majority can expect to be involved with corporate sustainability in the future. Indeed, 33 per cent have already seen their roles and responsibilities change as a result.

Playing an active role

There are a number of different ways that in-house lawyers are playing a role in corporate sustainability. Most common is in the development of sustainable business structures and policies internally (37 per cent), followed by internal training and promoting a sustainable business culture (both 29 per cent).

Victor Tettmar, executive partner at Bond Dickinson, said: "As questions of sustainability have risen up the corporate agenda, many in-house lawyers have been instrumental by virtue of the fact that significant drivers have been legal or regulatory.

"But the issue is shifting from a question of whether we can or can't do something to a question of whether we should or shouldn't do it, as businesses realise that sustainability and commerciality are intertwined."

Why in-house lawyers?

In-house legal departments are ideally placed to lead this new sustainability agenda, as they can offer guidance across the full range of business operations. However, the real opportunity exists on a strategic level, as legal advisers can demonstrate added value to their employers by assisting in policy formation.
By playing a role in structuring the mechanics of businesses on many levels, in-house lawyers can also make sure that corporate and governance structures are properly aligned to their organisation's interests.

A catalyst for change

According to PwC's most recent Corporate Sustainability Annual Performance Review, adopting a proactive policy on this matter is simply a case of "doing the right thing for our clients, people and communities".
Environmental policies and standards feature heavily in the professional services firm. For example, energy usages have reduced by 32 per cent since 2007 and the organisation is on track to reach its 50 per cent target by 2017.

By positioning themselves as moral compasses, in-house lawyers are ideally placed to make decisions in the context of the changing ethical dynamics facing firms like PwC. The bottom line is that by demonstrating effectiveness in this area, they will be viewed as business leaders.