Both client and provider must invest in a long-term relationship to truly harness the potential of timely and specialist support.

While environmental requirements on companies – due diligence, transparency and performance progress – have increased over the last decade, environmental team sizes have rarely recovered from the contraction experienced during the recession. Beyond the sheer weight of the environmental workload, CR managers are increasingly finding that the diversity of skills needed to satisfy the requirements is rare to find contained solely within one team. Outsourcing some or all of the environmental functions is becoming more popular. But to be truly effective, long-term relationships are needed.

The sole “environment manager” within large corporates in the late 1990s – often tasked with an array of activities including health and safety, supply chain management, environmental management, social impact management, communications (if the company engaged in this), quality and community giving – began to be replaced in the early 2000s by a larger team, with more specialised roles.

Even so, the increasing external reporting requirements on large corporates – including the various rankings and the need to produce a complete CR report each year – effectively shut down progress on performance for around three months each year unless data collection and copywriting was outsourced, as well as verification. CDP, DJSI, FTSE4Good and GRI amongst others led to a fundamental shift by connecting the investment and fund bodies with environmental performance data. As reporting requirements became stringent – and a clearer picture of ‘best practice’ more prescribed – some companies struggled to keep up with the new imperatives, now with the additional impetus of potential investor sanctions. Additionally, stand-alone research pieces were commonly commissioned from consultancies, often focussed on a defined issue affecting strategy and frequently inspired by the latest ranking requirements.

Compliance and due diligence obligations also increased over this period, led initially by regulatory pressures and financial penalties, particularly in the US. Overall, outsourced support in this period tended to be piecemeal, with providers called on occasionally on a task-by-task-basis and changed frequently, without investment in a long-term relationship or a deep understanding of the company culture.

As reporting requirements became stringent – and a clearer picture of ‘best practice’ more prescribed – some companies struggled to keep up with the new imperatives,

The economic turmoil of the past decade saw environmental teams cut and a retrenchment in Government policy globally on green issues – but emerging from this came incentives for companies to promote their environmental and social credentials directly – particularly to a new generation more interested in social value, hungry for transparency and well acquainted with the new tools with which that need could be satisfied.

What does this mean for today and the future? Certainly, we can expect that the need for transparency will continue to play a stronger role in environmental progress than compliance alone. For a generation well-schooled in sustainability matters and sceptical of regulatory effectiveness, environmental performance inherently includes aspects of social value, well-being, and value chain impacts.

The skill sets required to deliver this change are becoming more complex requiring a mixture of change management, data analysis, strategic insight, in-depth and targeted two way communications, and operational management. The reporting calendar is still a huge influence, meaning different skills sets continue to be emphasised at different times of the year.

Outsourced environmental teams can provide the right kind of technical support for the time of the year, and give a pool of specialist skills to be dipped in to when necessary. To truly harness the power of an outsourced team – to truly have a ‘team’ – the provider needs to be able to invest in a long-term relationship with the client and become well-versed in the company culture, with their own internal network. Only then can they work semiautonomously, and ensure their work becomes business-as-usual within the client company rather than the dreaded report-gathering-dust-on-a-shelf.

Conclusion

Outsourcing isn’t for everyone and shouldn’t be seen as a panacea to achieve higher rankings scores and deliver better results – the outsourced parties still need to work within the bounds of the strategic direction that can ultimately only be set by the company. If a company is willing to invest in a long-term relationship and truly immerses the provider within the day-today running, an outsourced team can become an invaluable pool of insight and workforce in the face of shifting priorities and constrained resources.