You’ve heard of CEOs and CMOs, but have you ever encountered a CSO? A bit newer to the C-Suite line-up, Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO) will be integral to the future of companies worldwide.
Also known as the “sense-maker in chief” — a term coined by Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance in their 2021 “The future of the Chief Sustainability Officer” report — CSOs are here to not only manage risks associated with economic, social, and environmental changes but also to spot and act on exciting opportunities.
As explained perfectly in the report’s forward, the position of CSO will play a huge role in moving brands forward:
“In a world where the speed, volume and complexity of change can threaten to throw organisations off their stride, there is a pressing need for strategic thinkers who can clarify the issues at stake, mobilise their colleagues and orchestrate purposeful change.”
But what exactly falls under the job description of a CSO? How does it fit with corporate sustainability? And how do you know if your brand should hire a CSO in 2022? Let’s explore.
What’s The Origin of The Chief Sustainability Officer?
While the role of CSO may seem quite new, the first known CSO appointments were actually back in 2004 at Nike and DuPont. And by 2019, big-name brands like Mastercard, P&G, and Nissan had made room for CSOs within their C-Suites.
But where did the CSO come from, and what influenced the rapid growth of this role over the last 18 years? Well, it all comes down to the importance of corporate social responsibility and evolving consumer expectations.
Each year, sustainability has become a more vital and urgent issue, and many companies have felt the pressure to keep up with public opinion and ever-evolving official guidelines.
In the words of Annemarie Meisling, the Head of Sustainability at Danish bioscience corporation Chr. Hansen, “the biggest change evident to me in the last five years is the increasing business relevance accorded to sustainability.”
Translation? Sustainability is no longer a niche interest, but something that consumers from all walks of life prioritize and have come to expect from brands. And over the years, many companies have been accused of “greenwashing” — aka when brands invest more time and money in marketing themselves as sustainable than in actual corporate environmental efforts.
However, many brands have gotten it right and become real champions for sustainability — like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s. So, what comprises the role of a CSO? Let’s take a look.
What Is The Role Of A Chief Sustainability Officer?
To be fair, there is no singular CSO job description that would adequately cover the myriad responsibilities they can have.
As seen in the IIF/Deloitte report, the CSOs surveyed listed a wide range of responsibilities and tasks that fall under their purview depending on their industry and the individual needs of their company. From making sense of external environmental, social, and governance (ESG) requirements to helping reconfigure internal strategies, CSOs have a lot on their plates.
But, Alison Doyle of The Balance Careers does an excellent job of summarizing a CSO’s main tasks, stating:
“Sustainability professionals develop, manage, and monitor a company’s sustainability strategy, and are responsible for improving the organization’s environmental, social, and economic impact.”
And when it comes to the skills needed to excel, the ITT/Deloitte report suggests that “CSOs see their skill set as primarily linked to strategy, influencing, raising awareness, and making the repercussions of ESG concerns tangible for the people in their business.”
This means that they have to fulfill four main roles: agitator, facilitator, executor, and steward — which are each expanded upon in the chart below.
Source: IIF/Deloitte CSO Report
As we can see, a great deal is expected of CSOs and they need to know how to adapt each of these roles so as not to upset or alienate their colleagues. There needs to be a balance between the roles — often with just the right mix of facilitator, executor, and steward, and a nice dash of agitator.
Understanding the balance each individual company will need between these four roles will be the real test of success among CSOs in 2022. Every brand is different and each member of the executive team will have different priorities and stakeholders to please.
Striking the right note will be key.
It’s also important to understand which people, teams, and departments the CSO will be interacting with. For most, the list is long.
Even if a CSO reports directly to a CEO and works closely with other members of the C-Suite, they’ll still need to interact regularly with teams like Finance, Product, Human Resources, and Tech — just to name a few.
Again, the IIT/Deloitte report provides a handy chart to show the typical interactions a CSO will be expected to have regarding sustainability efforts and initiatives.
Source: IIT/Deloitte The Future of the CSO Report
This chart clearly shows the wide range of responsibilities that are expected of a CSO. From assessing environmental impact to incorporating climate-related risks into pricing to communicating sustainability initiatives with consumers — a high-quality CSO should be able to do it all.
Thus, it makes sense that many of the CSOs surveyed in the ITT/Deloitte report came from backgrounds in public relations and policy or high-level operations and management — where their years of experience and acquired skill sets were easily transferable to a CSO’s responsibilities.
So, now that we all understand what role CSOs are supposed to play, the real question is: does your company need one?
3 Signs Your Company May Need A CSO
Keeping up with evolving sustainability requirements and best practices is a tough job but most modern companies need to do so in order to maintain a good brand image and reputation with consumers in the long term.
Of course, not all companies are in dire need of a CSO — it’s dependent on your industry, products and services, the size of your company, and brand goals. So, let’s take a look at a few reasons a brand should consider hiring a CSO.
1. No One Is Currently Managing Sustainability Initiatives
First, it’s important to note that your company may already have someone who fulfills the CSO role — just with a different title.
Whether it’s a Head of Sustainability, ESG Advisor, or Sustainability Manager — if you have someone who already looks after sustainability initiatives, you may not yet need to hire a CSO.
However, if you conduct thorough research into all your current employees’ responsibilities and no one is currently responsible for managing, organizing, and advocating for sustainability initiatives — it may be time to make a change.
And while you may think something along the lines of “My brand isn’t affected by sustainability issues”, think again. From banks to apparel brands to retail companies — sustainability affects every industry in one way or another.
So before you dismiss the possibility of hiring a CSO, take the time to consider how sustainability initiatives could affect your brand now and in the future — especially when it comes to target audience expectations.
However, keep in mind that not every company may need a full-time CSO. If you’re a smaller brand or a start-up, it may be enough to hire someone in an advisory capacity until you’ve grown enough to warrant someone full-time.
2. Your ESG Risks Will Become More Immediate in 2022
To understand whether or not your company should hire a CSO, you need to assess your exposure to ESG risks — aka environmental, social, and governance risks.
From “biodiversity and financial inclusion to modern slavery and the future of work”, there are many ESG risks that brands will need to take into consideration. And if those risks are deemed important enough to merit action, then you’ll need someone to take over this role.
Again, a company’s size will have an impact on how pressing certain ESG risks are viewed. Smaller companies may consider their ESG impact as “relatively modest, their product suite comparatively simple, and their stakeholders content for them to follow the pack and not lead.”
However, larger companies don’t have as much choice in the matter. As the IIT/Deloitte report points out, for larger firms, “sustainability is a challenge that is simply too big to ignore. Reimagining the firm’s business model—and with it the wide value chain— is an exacting task that involves dozens of functional areas.”
So, if you find that your brand is vulnerable to current ESG risks, it may be time to hire your “sense-maker in chief” to “translate strategy into practice and bring coordination where there would otherwise be chaos.”
3. Pressure From Consumers And/Or Stakeholders
Of course, we would never recommend blindly bending to pressure from consumers or stakeholders without doing your due diligence. Before deciding to appoint a CSO, you need to figure out if they’re necessary to your brand’s mission and if they will contribute to your success.
However, when it comes to sustainability, it does make sense to give more weight than normal to consumer and stakeholder opinions and pressure. Unlike fads or trends that come and go, sustainability is not going to fade away any time soon. It will only grow in importance and influence as time goes on.
So, if your brand is experiencing pressure from consumers or important stakeholders to prioritize sustainability and address environmental concerns, it may be time to consider hiring a CSO (or someone with a different title but equivalent duties).
Sometimes, a bit of pressure can be a good thing.
As previously stated, not every brand is in dire need of a CSO in 2022. It’s down to a number of factors, such as company size, values, mission, and goals.
However, if you’re a mid-sized or large company that’s looking to connect with consumers, there’s a large chance that many of your target audience members care about sustainability. And if it matters to them, it should matter to you.
Unsure of how your target audiences feel about sustainability? We recommend using brand monitoring, which provides access to nuanced consumer insights and will let you know exactly how your customers feel about specific issues.