The Evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer

By: Alexandra Kueller

In 2011, the Weinreb Group released CSO Back Story, which highlighted Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO) at the time and provided an analysis on the position and the evolution behind the title. Three years later, the Weinreb Group published a follow-up to the initial report, now examining the shifts and growth of the position over the last few years.

During their analysis of the CSO position, the Weinreb Group found some interesting statistics. Over the past three years, the number of CSOs in the US are up from 29 to 36, and 42% of CSOs are women (the Weinreb Group analyzed only US companies that are publicly traded and the official title of the position is “Chief Sustainability Officer” for this report). Right now, seven companies are on their second CSO, compared to 1 in 2011, and the number of CSO appointments is growing each year.

But throughout their analysis, the Weinreb Group noticed five distinctive shifts in CSO roles and they are as follows:

Collective Benefit

CSOs in many businesses across the country are now using sustainability to drive business. While many companies are still implementing recycling programs and reducing energy consumption, they are now showing the benefits of sustainability on an organizational level and a stakeholder level. Many CSOs see this as not only good for the company on a corporate level, but they realize how much the customer benefits from sustainability as well.

Innovation

Sustainability initiatives within the company are no longer enough for a CSO. Many CSOs are seeing an expansion of their role to innovation across the company by bringing corporate social responsibility (CSR) to procurement, design, and even marketing. As sustainable products become more important to the company and the customer, calls for innovation are needed at the CSO level. Often, many people from a variety of departments – EH&S, product stewardship, etc. – are being brought into sustainability teams to help drive innovation.

Stakeholder Signaling

When appointing a CSO, it brings forward both internal and external signals to stakeholders. Externally, stakeholders see that you are a part of the C-Suite, indicating a position of importance since you are included at the core decision-making at the senior levels of the company. Internally, by appointing a CSO, it can indicate where the company stands on certain issues. When employees see that you are a CSO, it shows that the company is serious about CSR.

Access

Becoming a CSO grants you access that spans from employees to some of the highest levels of leadership within the company. By having access to all the different departments, executives, and policy makers, it allows for more influence. CSOs are now using their access to help develop and execute corporate sustainability measures within the company while showing the importance of CSR to top level executives.

A Team Sport

Almost any CSO will be quick to tell you that a company’s CSR success was not because of them, but rather the entire team. With having to implement change across an entire company, CSOs feel as if they help bridge the gaps between various departments, but it really is a team effort to implement a new system.

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