The Elevated Role of Chief Sustainability Officer

(Credit: Weinreb Group)

by | May 19, 2021

(Credit: Weinreb Group)

“The CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) role is undergoing profound shifts, including expanding beyond the ‘E’ of ESG and the climate crisis to include social justice and equity, recognizing the intersectionality of enormously complex challenges,” says Ellen Weinreb of the Weinreb Group, an established leader in sustainability recruitment.

The Weinreb Group has been tracking CSO appointments since 2004. In their 2021 report, The Chief Sustainability Officer 10 Years Later: The Rise of ESG in The C-Suite, the Weinreb Group discusses the evolving and expanded role of the CSO. A key finding is that 2020 saw a boom in CSO appointments, with 31 companies appointing their first CSO as illustrated in the chart below. Key drivers of the growth include the pandemic, the social justice movement, and the ESG movement.

Other key findings from the research include:

More CSOs who have more influence, with investors driving environmental, social, and governance (ESG) integration:

The field has grown by more than 228%, from just 29 CSOs in 2011 to 95 CSOs in 2021. Perhaps because of the ever-growing and changing social and environmental risks, opportunities, and stakeholder demands, approximately one third of these CSOs assumed their position as their company’s first CSO in 2020. But even before 2020, the rising investor interest in sustainability issues was driving the expansion of the field, as well as the integration of ESG priorities into business.

More women, but little racial diversity:

Who occupies the CSO job has also changed. Our research reveals that the percentage of women in this post almost doubled. Women now hold 54% of CSO positions, up from 28% in 2011. Despite the movement toward gender balance, there remains very little racial diversity. The CSO position, as well as the sustainability profession as a whole, remains predominantly white.

Larger, more dispersed teams and embedded functions:

In the past 10 years, the CSO leadership role and team composition have also changed. In the corporate leadership hierarchy, CSOs are not quite as close as they once were to the CEO. Still, nearly 70% of CSOs told us they meet with their CEO fairly regularly, once a month or once a week. Moreover, sustainability teams are expanding, with the average team size increasing from 5 in 2011 to 15 today. We also found embedded sustainability practitioners in other functions outside of sustainability. 

A total of 95 publicly traded companies with heads of sustainability having the title CSO are listed in the report, including a handful of energy companies such as Duke Energy, Exelon and Sempra Energy. 

The report also captures key attributes for CSO success, including influencing through collaboration, ability to deal with ambiguity, translating the complex, embracing risk and innovation, and demonstrating humility. 

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