Most CSR departments didn’t exist 20 years ago. As a result, the concept of sustainability has lacked a definitive set of principles. It has meandered like a river, slowly drawing out best-practise when it comes to things like carbon reduction and ethical value chain principles.
To this extent, sustainability has been built on trade-offs. No company can be truly “sustainable” until all departments have radicalised their processes and priorities. A key role of the sustainability professional has therefore been to bridge these departmental divides over time; to take climate action from a niche idea to an in-built company ethos. The rise of the boardroom-level chief sustainability officer in recent years serves to highlight that, in many businesses, that ethos is now being realised.
Earlier this month, another breakthrough came. In an unprecedented move, Helena Helmersson was announced as not only the first woman to be H&M’s chief executive, but its first boss with “sustainability professional” on her CV. In fact, this appears to be the first time that a sustainability professional has risen up the ranks to lead a large business.
Helmersson spent more than five years in H&M’s sustainability team, first as social sustainability manager then as a sustainability manager.
“I am very incentivised and humble ahead of the task,” Helmersson said at the time. “I look forward to driving the plan forward together with my colleagues, with a focus on the customer to continue strengthening our financial development in the short and long term. There is great potential to expand with existing and new brands, with new types of partnerships and to continue leading the development towards a sustainable fashion industry.”
In recent years, H&M has made a number of big sustainability commitments, most notably pledges to become a “fully circular” business by 2030 and achieve “climate-positivity” by 2040. The fashion giant has adopted a strong leadership stance on CSR by looking beyond net-zero emissions, although its sustainability transition has been somewhat stifled by a fast-fashion business model, compounded by discrepancies over worker pay.
Helmersson’s task at hand is to build those lofty climate and circular goals into every decision-making process and to use her expertise spanning the entire sustainability agenda to begin to remove the trade-offs associated with traditional business models. It is not an easy task, but forms the litmus test of what could be a new dawn of sustainable business leaders.
First of many?
M&S’s former sustainability director Mike Barry’s LinkedIn commentary on Helmersson’s appointment garnered an immensely positive response from the sustainability community, with commenters noting that “we’ve got to a point where ‘woman becomes CEO’ is no longer the headline” and that this would be a “litmus test” for normalising the CSO-to-CEO career trajectory.