The concept of “sustainability,” as we know it today, was first introduced in 1987 in the famous Brundtland (for Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland) Report produced by several countries for the UN. The report defined sustainable development as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and rests on three pillars: social, economic, and environmental.

The first chief sustainability officer (CSO) for a publicly traded company was Linda Fisher, appointed by DuPont in 2004. By 2011, there were 29 CSOs at publicly traded companies in the United States. The CSO’s domain includes the responsibility of an organization’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG).

ESG considerations have become more important, as Generations Y and Z make up the largest segment of the US population and, therefore, make the majority of buying decisions and form the majority of the talent pool. As one sales leader said, “I hope sales can lead the sustainability play to make it [sales] more attractive to younger generations.”

Additionally, just as the COVID pandemic accelerated trends/movements already in motion (e.g., the digital transformation of many businesses), it also accelerated the urgency around sustainability — particularly its impact on sales. According to Paul Rector, VP and GM of global accounts at Lenovo: “It’s become imperative to have a story [regarding sustainability] and really do it. […] We have offerings that help our customers with their sustainability efforts. Companies realized that in the first six months of COVID, they were able to impact the climate positively. Companies want to keep the positive impact.”

Three Ways Sales Can Support Sustainability Initiatives

  1. Create sustainable solutions. While this may not be something that sales is specifically responsible for, the sales organization can inform product/marketing about which solutions customers are asking for and how to package them. According to Paul Rector, “Salespeople are the eyes and ears for the corporation […] and push the company to respond — it can’t be rhetoric.” Additionally, many technology providers are not only becoming more sustainable themselves but are also offering solutions to help their customers become more sustainable and therefore align to each other’s sustainability initiatives.
  2. Leverage technology to create insights. Here are some ways organizations can use technology to drive sustainability:
    • Once you have sustainable products to sell, how are you gathering data about when your sales teams are selling them? Are you tracking your sustainable solutions at the opportunity level (e.g., within your customer relationship management solution) to begin collecting data that will feed back into your product development strategies/roadmap? Which solutions are gaining traction with your customers?
    • Are you leveraging your sales engagement platforms to inform sellers about what assets resonate with sustainability-conscious prospects and buyers, what the next best action might be, and what cadence will best engage these types of buyers based on their interest in sustainability?
    • Are you gleaning information from your conversation intelligence capabilities to highlight when sustainability concerns are expressed and how to address them?
    • Do you capture data about how to package and price proposals based on sustainability concerns?
  3. Incentivize the selling of sustainable solutions. It’s often been said that human beings do exactly what they are incented to do. There are two immediate strategies that can be used to incentivize salespeople to sell more sustainable solutions: One, pay a higher commission rate on sustainable solutions, and two, weight the dollars that come from sustainable solutions at a higher value so that salespeople can meet their quotas faster by selling sustainable solutions. Finally, consider whether your sales leaders should be compensated on the percentage of sustainable solutions sold.

Orchestrating and implementing your sustainability strategy can have tangible benefits, from increasing your brand value and creating efficiencies to increasing revenues and profits, attracting valuable talent, and creating new business opportunities and go-to-market strategies. Is your sales organization ready?

This blog post is part of Forrester’s Earth Day 2022 series. For more Forrester insights on sustainability, see the full set of Forrester’s climate action blogs.