Category Name - Best Practices10 Sep 2019Back

The Changing Role of Chief Sustainability Officers

By Shalini Singh
The Changing Role of Chief Sustainability Officers

Over the last few years, sustainability has shifted from boardrooms to grassroots and its effectiveness will determine the future quality of our lives.  The understanding of this change is at the very core of the role of anyone working on sustainability.

The concept of a connected world may have become more obvious in the age of the Internet.  But in reality, it has always been so, only less visible than it is today.  Sustainability, in its essence, is about recognizing these myriad connections and preserving them for the future.  For all practical purposes, the Chief Sustainability Officer is the conscience keeper for the company -- the bridge that connects the two worlds.

When Tata Power started its Masheer Conversation Project more than four decades ago, our objective was not just to save a species of fish from extinction.  We saw Masheer as an important cultural and biological icon of the rivers of India linking livelihoods and biodiversity conservation to each other.  After all these years, we continue to remain acutely aware of this delicate connection. This is but just one example of what sustainability means to us.  The foundation of this idea of sustainability goes back to the founding years of Tata Power when we started in 1915 with the commissioning India’s first hydroelectric project in Khopoli, Maharashtra, a clean start on which country largest integrated utility has been built. Our strategic intent now is to ensure 40-50% of our generating capacity comes from renewable sources by 2025.

Before we go into the changing role of a CSO, it is important to understand why sustainability rests at the very core of everything we do.  For example, when we set up a new power plant it is not just about a piece of land on which it sits or where and how we get fuel to fire it up.  An infrastructure project of this nature also brings about some fundamental changes in the community around which it is built.  It needs clean water, good roads, skilled people, good living conditions for the people working there and their families, law and order, etc.  It touches the community in so many ways.  There is a strong symbiotic connection at play that needs to be understood, appreciated and nurtured. This connection thrives throughout the entire lifetime of the project. Further, it also becomes part of the community when new supporting businesses start to mushroom around such a project. 

In today’s context, the role of the CSO is all about defining and establishing the role of the business in the larger community within which it operates.  In that sense, we have come a long way from cheque-book philanthropy to being an active member of the community.  So, for all practical purposes, the CSO is the conscience keeper for the company -- the bridge that connects the two worlds.   The primary role of the CSO is to help the senior management and the board to work effectively within the community.  The CSO now has the responsibility of being the change agent within the organization who brings in a cross-function approach and converges all stakeholders to define and implement the organizational strategy for long term sustainability. 

More specifically in the case of Tata Power, the new consumer businesses that we have ventured into including rooftop solar, EV charging infrastructure, solar micro-grids, ESCO, and Home Automation, all have the common thread of being environmentally responsible. Our CSR commitment pre-dates the regulations that make it compulsory for the industry to engage in community development and we have also included the future generations in making responsible decisions through our decade-old Club Enerji initiative covering 500 schools across 12 cities.

The role of the CSO is also to ensure that the sustainability goals are made more engaging throughout the organization.  For example, today Tata Power employees are an integral part of the sustainability journey and have clocked an impressive 82,867 hours also involving their families in this effort. Our social initiatives have positively impacted 24.67 lakh beneficiaries in FY19 in the areas of education, livelihood, skill-building, clean water, health and sanitation, financial inclusivity and women empowerment. The role of the CSO in such a context has been to influence the strategic thinking towards de-carbonization, circular economy, biodiversity conservation and empowering communities.

Tata Power is also aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs and has prioritized nine of these through a comprehensive study. We are spearheading the sustainability journey for the power sector by not only mapping our initiatives with SDGs but also charting a way forward through a roadmap with 3-year targets for all the prioritized SDGs. To enable this, we are building partnerships with global and national organizations like UNDP, WBCSD, Niti Aayog, ICSI, Nabard, etc. in the sustainability space to collectively further climate action efforts and make representations to the government on regulatory changes and social development.

Finally, the role of the CSO is also that of an effective communicator both within and outside the organization.  Measuring and analyzing the impact of the work done and presenting them to all stakeholders in a form that is understood and appreciated by all is critical for the long-term effectiveness of the organization’s sustainability goals.