Part of our Global Sustainability Leaders Inteview Archive, this interview dates from 2015
As part of our series of Global Sustainability Leader Interviews, ALLEN & YORK were privileged to interview, Christèle Delbé, Head of Sustainability for Enterprise Vodafone Group - about how she became involved in sustainability and her views on sustainability within the commercial marketplace today.
What or who inspired you to pursue a career in sustainability?
Typically, when I finished my initial studies I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so when the opportunity arose to volunteer for Greenpeace and travel to Sweden, I took it. I really enjoyed the passion of the people I was working with, it almost didn’t seem like work and it was a real inspiration. When I discovered that the Swedish government were starting an international MSc in Environmental Management and Policy, I jumped at the chance.
It was the mid-nineties and when I returned to France sustainability jobs didn’t really exist, so I looked across the channel to England to begin my career and was fortunate to join John Elkington (another great inspiration) at SustainAbility, a consultancy which was at the forefront of the movement.
Were you naturally drawn to the corporate sector and away from consultancy?
Consultancy was a great place to learn and gain experience across a wide range of disciplines and to have fingers in many pies, so I am glad to have started my career there. It also offered an introduction to forward thinking clients and provided a great springboard into the corporate sector.
I feel at home in corporate business, as I like to see change developing from within. I always thought in the past that it was a shame when sustainability was done by just ‘tinkering around on the edges’, I believe it needs to be fully embedded within the agenda of business to make a difference and this is what I am experiencing in business today.
How does the sustainability role fit into business today?
Historically, at Vodafone for instance the sustainability team would partner with a functional group, say ‘supply chain’; identify areas for improvement, create initiatives, put the business case together and guide them through it. Nowadays, the groups are so good at driving their own sustainability agenda the role of the sustainability team has changed.
We now offer a centralised framework and joined-up approach which can both drive the company agenda forward and hold up an internal mirror to ensure the each functional group is achieving exactly what they set out to achieve. The sustainability team is integrated with every business function, creating a cohesive and compelling narrative across the business.
This is also reflected personally, in my own job. The Vodafone Enterprise team created a role for me to move into, which means that I now sit within the operational functionality of the company, rather than outside.
What key advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in sustainability?
If I were talking to a school leaver I would say, don’t limit yourself. Keep an open mind and look at functional team roles, e.g. HR, communications, supply chain, finance etc. and then look to include sustainability into your career. What I see increasingly, especially in the higher level positions, are companies who are looking for core business people with strong ‘functional’ skill-sets, with the additional wrapper of sustainability. Rather than solely a straightforward sustainability practitioner.
Qualifications are important and you may even feel over-qualified at the start of your career. However, to have core business skills coupled with a strong sustainability credentials is a winning combination.
If I were talking to someone who was already working and looking to move into sustainability, I would say;
Look at your existing role and how you can add sustainability into your job function. Take the initiative.
If you can, look at flexible working or giving your personal time to volunteer or gain experience with an NGO or charitable organisation. This shows real commitment and will also give you valuable experience and opportunities to build your network.
Gain relevant qualifications, which coupled with your business experience will strengthen your skill-set.
What skills are important for the sustainability professional?
Influence and persuasion.
Listening, not preaching. Understand the pressure points of the business and using sustainable practices to achieve goals.
The ability to translate technical jargon into everyday speak – mainstreaming sustainability. Make it simple.
Understanding the commercial imperatives, in order to help the business to achieve its goals.
Where do you see the future of sustainability?
I see strong progress within the FMCG consumer sector, which is more and more being driven by sustainable economics.
There is increasing pressure on consumer goods companies to better manage their resources, work-force and supply chains. Raw materials are becoming scarcer, resources such as water have to be managed more carefully and people are more socially and economically mobile. Cocoa farms, tea plantations and mining operations for example, all have to be well managed in order to be productive into the future.
The FMCG sector is starting to have a language in which growth strategy becomes sustainability strategy and not just for philanthropic or compassionate reasons. This is because of the need to secure a strong global value chain, to ensure a quality product and a successful and sustainable business future.
It is not us and them anymore.
We'd like to say a big thank you to Christèle for a great insight into her sustainability career thus far and invite you to watch her superb TED Talk which she delivered in February, earlier this year.