How in-house law departments can lean in on corporate sustainability

Things are happening fast. 

Large companies are making bold commitments to transformational change. Such initiatives as going “net zero”, sourcing responsibly, fighting ocean pollution, and solving many other social challenges are officially on the corporate agenda.

What is the role of in-house legal counsel in all of this?

Corporate law departments have a big opportunity to impact sustainability goals. Here is a guide to getting started.

1. Start by learning the landscape

If your company is large enough to have an in-house law department, it probably already has a corporate sustainability program of some kind. There may even be dedicated staff. Before you can start adding value, you need to understand what already exists.

— Read all internal and external materials on your corporate sustainability program. You may have an annual report, a webpage, public documents like UNGC or GRI reports, or an internal resource page. All of these are great resources for you to learn what your company is already doing.

— Educate yourself on best practices. Doing the background research will enable you to learn the lingo and benchmark your companies’ current activities. Here are a few examples of best-in-class programs:

— Once you have some background, reach out to your corporate sustainability team or whoever is leading on this subject. They will be thrilled to hear from you. Corporate sustainability programs are built by engaging a wide group of stakeholders. Support from the corporate legal department would be a big win for any program.

2. Know why you are getting involved

Corporate legal departments have ever-escalating demands and tightly controlled resources. So why should you allocate some of your scarce time to corporate sustainability? Here’s why.

  • Corporate sustainability and ethics are strongly linked. Corporate legal departments are responsible for ethics and compliance. Applying a corporate sustainability lens shifts the conversation from “What’s the minimum legal requirement?” to “What’s the right thing to do?”. By raising the bar, you will inspire better decisions and reduce the likelihood of costly missteps.
  • ESG disclosure obligations are rapidly increasing. Regulators are on the road to mandating environmental, social and governance disclosures. Meanwhile, clients and investors are demanding more transparency. You must ensure that these requirements are met. Even if you are a private company, public statements on the subject must be accurate to protect the brand against allegations of consumer fraud and greenwashing.
  • Legal departments are well-placed to have an impact. Corporate sustainability touches every business unit and support function. Legal departments may be small, but their reach spans the whole organization. You have the knowledge and contacts across the organization that you need to be successful.
  • It will be fun. As a lawyer, you almost certainly love learning new things and feeling like your work serves a higher purpose. Playing a leading role in corporate sustainability will give you an opportunity to do both.

3. Find the quick wins

There are some quick wins for corporate sustainability that most legal departments are well situated to execute on. Below is a checklist of action items to consider.

  • Weave corporate sustainability into messaging and training on ethics.
  • Partner with procurement to establish processes for vetting vendors based on their corporate sustainability track record.
  • Implement green internal practices like an electronic signature.
  • Insert sustainability requirements into vendor agreements.
  • Include sustainability in enterprise risk management assessments.

There are many other possibilities. Hold a brainstorm on the subject with the legal team. You will be surprised what opportunities you discover.

You have the power to make a difference. Companies heavily impact our environment and our society. You have a voice at the table and well-developed advocacy skills. You are a powerful ally with the ability to influence your organization. By taking the time to engage with corporate sustainability, you will create positive change for yourself, your organization, and the world.

*This article is an expert guest post as part of Loio’s guest blogging campaign. Loio has preserved the contributor’s authentic writing style.

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