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GCs take on corporate sustainability briefs as plcs strive to protect brands

Angry shareholders, rising demands for transparency, tougher regulation, declining trust in business and the need to access new markets. Just some of the reasons why a growing number of plcs are moving to improve their focus on long-term performance and ethical standards… and calling in their general counsel (GCs) to help.

As part of an Insight report on sustainability, Legal Business gathered responses from more than 250 senior in-house counsel to gauge the extent that such initiatives are impacting on the day jobs of plc law chiefs.

Our report, conducted in collaboration with Linklaters, found that nearly three out of four in-house counsel (72%) saw sustainability as a ‘top priority’ for senior management, reflecting efforts to protect exposed brands and head off the risks of falling foul of regulators. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that the chief executive or board was responsible for setting their organisation’s sustainability strategy, while nearly two thirds (64%) of GCs said advising in this area had become a more important part of their role compared with two years ago. Nearly three quarters (74%) of responding legal teams had taken steps to raise awareness of sustainability with their employer.

‘When you deal with dozens of markets, it is far simpler to have a single standard.’
Seth Jaffe, Levi Strauss & Co

It is clear, however, that organisations are setting sustainability strategies in response to a riskier, more complex and demanding business environment. The benefits those surveyed expected to see as a result of their sustainability efforts included an improved brand reputation with customers (81%), demonstrating effective management to investors (80%) and managing global compliance risk (78%).

The steady march of sustainability from corporate and social responsibility into broader corporate strategy comes as some companies are creating their own global ethical frameworks to deal with multiplying regulatory risks and complex supply chains.

Seth Jaffe (pictured), GC of Levi Strauss & Co, commented: ‘When you deal with dozens of markets, it is difficult to manage thousands of rules across the supply chain. It is far simpler to have a single standard that sets how you expect suppliers to operate.’

Linklaters corporate partner Tom Shropshire added: ‘Corporate sustainability and strategy are becoming more or less interchangeable. There is a real need for GCs to understand sustainability.’

Click here for ‘Dollars and sense’, our Insight special on corporate sustainability.