Event Recap: Sustainability Leadership Panel

Holly Williamson
On December 1, 2016 NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business hosted a panel event entitled “Sustainability Leadership: how companies are realizing the value of sustainability in their business strategies.” The event brought together Adi Ignatius, Editors of the Harvard Business Review, Georg Kell, Vice Chairman of Arabesque Partners, and Jonathan Maher, VP of CSR and Sustainability at L’Oreal USA. The panel discussion was moderated by Tensie Whelan, Director of the Center for Sustainable Business and former CEO of the Rainforest Alliance.
Students, faculty, and business community members came together at NYU Stern’s Tisch Hall until the event was standing room only, while Tensie welcomed the esteemed panelists and began the discussion. Throughout the night, the conversation focused on the private sector's current and future role in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Adi Ignatius began by describing the difficulty to recognize and measure corporate action on ESG in the face of unstandardized measurement systems. However, he stressed the importance of moving forward despite these difficulties, speaking from experience as he stated, “I thought it was important for HBR to say ‘ESG matters.’”
George Kell of Arabesque Partners reiterated the importance of looking at this aspect of corporate action from an investor perspective, explaining that “good leadership goes hand in hand with environmental stewardship.” As the panel discussed the need for more investment in the integration of quality data into socially responsible investment strategies, Kell explained the growth potential in this field. “I’m very optimistic that we are at a beginning of a new era,” Kell explained, stating “ESG will do for finance what X-ray did for medicine,” as the new data will give investors the ability to “look beneath the skin” and understand corporate strategy at a deeper level. 
As Jonathan Maher weighed in, he was able to provide a concrete case study of socially responsible value creation when speaking about his company’s sustainability journey. Maher explained that L’oreal first began to look at sustainability through the lens of materiality and risk assessment. As they continued, they discovered value creation opportunities in stakeholder engagement, brand value, and innovation -- according to Maher, “sustainability is an extraordinary innovation lens.”
The panelists also spoke about the role that business can play to be proactive on issues of climate change. Mr. Ignatius spoke about the increasing opportunity for businesses to lead the way, and change negative perceptions of the corporate sector as they do so. Mr. Kell instead focused on the vast potentials possible in an interconnected world, citing a role for business in responsible resource management. Finally, Mr. Maher discussed the difficulty for companies to position themselves in light of the new administration. However, Maher also described L’Oreal’s experience of learning to work and share value with local communities.
The panelists then took questions from the audience, addressing everything from the soft skills necessary for corporate sustainability careers, to unlocking the potential of big data for ESG management. At the end of the night the tone was optimistic, as Mr. Kell responded to an audience question with an outlook for the future: “a transformation needs to happen, I'm confident it will because of both necessity and technology.”