Women: Torchbearers Of Sustainability & Business Change

Women are not only making businesses ready for a net-zero planet but are also influencing the world as thought leaders

Whether we talk about the recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow or the world of business, women leaders like Patricia Espinosa and Christiana Figueres— present and past chiefs of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—have been shaping the global sustainability agenda. Apart from engaging the private sector, their effort has been to make the drive more ambitious and fast while embedding inclusivity.

Sanda Ojiambo and Helen Clarkson, CEOs of the United Nations Global Compact and The Climate Group, respectively, are stamping their presence on the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) map in the corporate world. Supporting them are sustainability officers—nearly half of whom are women—in senior management teams at 600 companies out of the total 3,000 companies across 46 countries assessed by financial firm Credit Suisse in its report titled ‘CS Gender 3000 in 2021: Broadening the Diversity’.

In some places, sustainability officers are now being called ESG officers. While the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘ESG’ are often used interchangeably, sustainability is more about preserving natural and social resources and ESG evaluates a company’s environmental, social and governance performance.

There has also been a trend which has grown from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to sustainability and now, ESG. Women from business families have been active in the CSR world alongside civil society women in the environment field. Dipali Goenka, CEO and Joint Managing Director, Welspun, says, “The sustainability space today is filled with successful and passionate changemakers, most of whom happen to be women.”

The reasons behind the growing number and influence of women in the space are varied. One of them is the fact that sustainability needs a ‘systems thinking’ approach as opposed to a ‘me-first’ approach that has been propounded over the last few decades. Systems thinking places focus on what is good for me, good for my family and friends and good for the planet. Goenka elaborates, “ESG issues impact the entire organisation. Women bring in a deeper understanding of what these issues are and how they can impact business value.” Welspun India has adopted the goal of nurturing the ecosystem and sourcing 100% sustainable cotton, including organic, by 2030.

Competencies like long-term thinking, innovation, collaboration, environmental management, transparency and social inclusiveness have been particularly found to be helpful in pursuing sustainable development. These attributes are more common in companies that have gender-balanced leadership teams in contrast to male-dominated teams, according to a report titled ‘Better Leadership, Better World’ published by WomenRising2030, a global coalition of women and gender networks promoting women in business for a more sustainable world. This is in sync with the understanding that gender-balanced leadership is also more profitable.

“Women in leadership bring crucial management competencies and fresh perspectives to the board and are becoming the driving force behind the ESG strategies of a company. Hence, companies with a gender-diverse workforce visualise and drive sustainable practices more efficiently,” says Priya Agarwal Hebbar, Non-Executive Director, Vedanta. Hebbar works towards enhancing the ESG performance of one of the world’s leading natural resources companies. Vedanta has pledged to invest $5 billion over the next 10 years to accelerate achievement of the net-zero target by 2050.

These behaviours also ensure that the direct and indirect effects of business are mitigated while delivering positive socio-environmental objectives. “Other factors like collaboration, transparency and inclusiveness help in learning good practices, knowledge exchange and facilitate replicability and scalability of business models,” says Namita Vikas, founder, auctusESG, a global advisory working at the intersection of finance, investment and sustainability.

She adds: “A few other essential skills are critical thinking, data analysis and effective communication. Besides, emotional intelligence is a key leadership competence which women have, enabling them to lead through unprecedented times like the one we are currently going through.”

María Mendiluce, CEO, We Mean Business Coalition, believes that sustainability calls for strategic long-term vision to keep pace with the latest global discourse and accordingly set the agenda in business. “Apart from long-term vision, women tend to be creative and bring in new, innovative approaches which are the need of the hour more than ever,” says Mendiluce.

Solving complex problems associated with sustainability needs a collaborative and networked approach with partnerships bringing together governments, enterprises, entrepreneurs, global agencies and funding partners, believes Sindhu Gangadharan, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, SAP Labs India and Head, SAP User Enablement. “Women have long been recognised for their community-oriented and collaborative leadership style. They have an opportunity to play a critical role and redefine the world,” says Gangadharan.

Namrata Rana, Director-Strategy and Brand, Futurescape, too, stresses the fact that women are great collaborators. “Women are great at collaboration because they use a multi-sectoral approach in solving challenges. Such expertise is very useful in the pursuit of ESG,” says Rana, also the co-author of ‘SHIFT: Decisions for a Net Zero World’.

But, the central plank to lead the sustainability charge is driven by environmental management which has the most visible and scrutinised impact. “The earlier the companies embed sound environmental management in their strategy and operations, the better it is. Times are changing fast. What was plant-level compliance yesterday has become part of national commitment at the global level,” says Seema Arora, deputy director general, Confederation of Indian Industry and Head, CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development.

Promoting diversity and ensuring inclusion, too, matter a lot. It is as much about providing decent wages and working conditions, and ensuring gender diversity and staff welfare as it is about protecting and advancing the interests of local communities and other communities of interest.

A common thread connecting these qualities is empathy. As Welspun’s Goenka says: “ESG impacts organisational processes for consumers, suppliers, employees and society at large. Hence, empathy is needed to ensure that organisational scale brings positive outcomes for people across the board and the environment. An inclusive approach that takes everyone along is often needed.”

Responding to long-term shared challenges also requires transparency and honest communication backed by numbers. These are needed for not only compliance purposes but also to gain a competitive edge. Disclosures about a company’s impact on people and the planet are becoming more important today and are even enforced legally. Companies have to be responsible and also be seen as being responsible. Even public scrutiny is increasing by the day. “Transparency is an important aspect which allows businesses to keep a check and balance from time to time while evaluating their efforts,” says Vedanta’s Hebbar.

Ramya Krishnaswamy, Head of Institutional Communities and ESG Initiative, World Economic Forum (WEF), agrees. “Good communication comes naturally to women. Of course, it has to be honest and backed by solid numbers. Otherwise, it becomes ESG-washing.”

Apart from having sustainability-friendly qualities, women are also more inspired to make a positive difference in the world, according to the WomenRising2030 report.

Findings of some other reports are also along the same lines. A study by management consulting firm Korn Ferry, which covered 57 female CEOs from Fortune 1,000, too, has revealed that more than two-thirds of the respondent CEOs were driven by a sense of purpose beyond hitting targets and making profits for shareholders. Status, power and rewards were not good enough attractions for them. “More women look to lead purposeful lives along with business. ESG is an opportunity to embed purpose into business,” emphasises Krishnaswamy.

Another recent report by management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman and 30% Club, a global campaign by CEOs to increase gender diversity in boards and senior management, notes that more women should be in leadership positions. They are often more open than men to changes that will drive climate action but are underrepresented in decision‑making positions, especially in carbon‑intensive industries, the report says.

The Oliver Wyman report titled ‘The Climate Action Gender Gap’ also highlights the opportunity associated with empowering women as climate action leaders, climate lens investors and low-carbon product influencers. Women’s propensity for climate friendliness combined with their preference for making sustainable investments make for a potentially winning combination. As Gangadharan says, “Today, India is better positioned than ever to become a model of corporate sustainability for the rest of the world and both large and small enterprises have a unique opportunity to lead the change here.”

Women’s leadership roles can also serve as a catalyst to inspire more women to become sustainability leaders. While men may either bear or aspire to cultivate such attributes and act accordingly, women are striding ahead in key areas like sustainable financing and clean tech.