The 8 Obligations of Chief Sustainability Officers


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The variety of corporations appointing a chief sustainability officer has grown considerably over the previous few years. As a result of novelty of the position, the CSO’s precise obligations and duties are nonetheless imprecise. It’s vital for executives and boards to make sure that the CSO’s position is balanced amongst all three parts of ESG. The authors current a CSO’s eight distinct duties and a visible framework to make sure that every one will get the extent of effort it wants.

The phrase “sustainability” has by no means been extra widespread within the company world. The variety of corporations appointing a chief sustainability officer (CSO) is rising quickly: In 2021 extra CSOs had been employed than within the earlier 5 years mixed.

However regardless of good intentions — and widespread acceptance of the significance of sustainability — there’s nonetheless an absence of readability a couple of CSO’s duties and accountabilities. For instance, at one giant European shopper items agency we consulted with, there are quite a few job titles in a wide range of items that embody the phrase “sustainability.” The result’s fragmented possession, inner competitors for visibility and sources, and inefficiency with a substantial amount of overlap and duplication.

The confusion isn’t a surprise. Whereas different capabilities and roles, such because the CFO or CMO, are nicely established, the CSO position was just about extraordinary till not too long ago. Historical past and benchmarks are restricted. This partly explains the inconsistent job descriptions, the totally different mandates and accountabilities, in addition to the number of reporting strains. Regardless of their growing profile, solely a minority (35%) of CSOs report on to the CEO. Most often, the individual chargeable for sustainability is constrained by a restricted and totally different remit — reporting to the COO when emphasizing an effectivity position; to the CFO when the main focus is on investor relations; to the chief communications officer when PR is necessary; or to the overall counsel when consideration is on compliance. In different instances, the position is distributed over two or three totally different departments. ESG separation is just not unusual: the “E” of environmental underneath the COO, the “S” of social underneath the CHRO, and the “G” of governance underneath company authorized.

We’ve been right here earlier than. Fragmentation and an absence of readability is frequent when new roles are launched; assume for instance of the rise of the chief digital officer or the chief innovation officer in C-suites during the last decade or so. At first their duties and obligations weren’t nicely codified, creating confusion about accountabilities, fragmentations, and even tensions with different overlapping capabilities.

To clear the fog and assist C-suites outline the place and obligations of the CSO, we created a easy visible framework.

Eight Vital Duties for CSOs

We initially designed our “8-task spider graph” for the position of chief innovation officer. Because the software proved highly effective, we revised it for the newly created place of the CSO. It breaks the CSO position into eight distinct duties:

  1. Guaranteeing regulatory compliance. Anticipate regulatory traits and their implications. Set up adherence to the sustainability legal guidelines and laws that apply to every business, course of, and sort of enterprise. Assess threat administration. Enact inner insurance policies.
  2. ESG monitoring and reporting. Gather knowledge and metrics following the reporting requirements. Benchmark with business friends. Put together the completion and communications of firm ESG report.
  3. Overseeing the portfolio of sustainability initiatives. Act as a mission administration workplace: planning, coordinating, reviewing progress, and monitoring outcomes to coordinate numerous operational efforts.
  4. Managing stakeholders’ relationships. Promote ongoing dialogue with inner and exterior stakeholders with a purpose to develop constructive, clear relationships.
  5. Constructing organizational capabilities. Establish gaps and undertake applicable instructional initiatives for upskilling and/or sourcing the lacking capabilities. Establish revolutionary methods to scale the brand new capabilities. Share and disseminate data and finest practices.
  6. Fostering cultural change. Assist outline and talk goal to drive the transformation. Champion cultural change throughout your complete group additionally by means of schooling. Promote mindset shifts primarily based on concrete behaviors. Set up routines to strengthen the change, for a reputable “stroll the discuss” from leaders.
  7. Scouting and experimenting. Promote openness towards the exterior innovation ecosystem. Discover rising sustainability applied sciences, options, and practices. Check the applicability and study from experiments. Scale up adoption within the broader group.
  8. Embedding sustainability into processes and determination making. Revise key processes and associated standards/metrics/instruments for choices. Coach determination makers to handle advanced trade-offs.

Visualizing the Eight Duties

Spider graphs (often known as radar graphs) are sometimes used to show knowledge throughout a number of distinctive dimensions. Plotting the CSO’s eight duties — and the quantity of effort spent on every — on a spider graph may also help executives determine the precise protection of obligations, the place the present focus is, the place there could also be a necessity to extend efforts, and the place gaps are. Visible readability fosters strategic discussions and a spotlight on what actually counts relatively than on particulars.

Begin by positioning every of the eight duties on the surface factors of seven concentric octagons, beginning on the prime and dealing clockwise. Then have a gaggle dialogue to find out how a lot effort is presently getting used on every process and assign them a quantity utilizing the next scale:

  • 1–2: Low effort
  • 3–5: Medium effort
  • 6–7: Excessive effort

Then for every process, place a dot on the octagon that corresponds with its degree of effort. For instance, in case you charge process two as a 4 on the hassle scale, place its dot on the fourth octagon from the center.

Once we labored with a German producer, the manager group posed many questions on organizational particulars and particular procedures, however it quickly turned evident that they lacked focus and strategic pondering on the “what” and the “why” of the CSO position. We inspired them to clear up the anomaly by creating an 8-task spider graph in an govt workshop setting, earlier than leaping into the dynamics of organizational design.



The truth is, visualizing the present positioning of the position on the spider graph was an awakening train. The corporate realized that a number of duties weren’t sufficiently coated. The CSO position appeared skewed primarily on operational and regulatory features. As well as, in discussing every process, they discovered an virtually unique emphasis on local weather change.

As soon as the group agreed on the precise positioning, the dialogue moved on to the evolution of the CSO position and the way to make sure a greater steadiness by investing in underserved dimensions. The chief group up to date the graph accordingly.

Placing the Graph into Follow

Listed here are 4 suggestions that may assist executives make good use of the eight-task spider graph:

Take possession of all eight duties.

To steer the sustainability transformation of their corporations, CSOs ought to be accountable for all eight objects. We’ve come throughout plenty of organizations which can be too targeted on the regulatory and authorized parts or exterior communications however overlook cultural parts or functionality constructing.

Suppose past “E.”

Every process ought to be articulated not solely round environmental scope (because it typically occurs), however also needs to consider the opposite dimensions of sustainability.

Think about “Scouting & Experimenting,” (process seven on the spider graph): When figuring out this process’s sub-activities, corporations ought to transfer past solely new applied sciences for CO2 discount. For instance, the CSO may take a look at new approaches for social inclusion of the corporate’s goal communities or new fashions for extra clear and honest worker compensation.

Outline the phases of the evolution.

Whereas it’s key to have a goal positioning for the mid-to-long time period, it’s typically not sensible to put money into all underserved duties concurrently. The shift doesn’t occur in a single day. Outline which gaps to shut first and which of them to deal with later, relying on the context of the corporate (e.g., kind of tradition, degree of abilities, organizational setup) and its sector (e.g., kinds of exterior stakeholders and laws).

For instance, a newly appointed CSO we interviewed acknowledged the necessity to cowl all eight duties to realize a extra pervasive transformation. Nonetheless, urgent regulatory points prompted her to position extra emphasis on duties one and two of the spider graph. This allowed her to pay attention organizational efforts to quickly shut essentially the most vital gaps (abilities, techniques, and knowledge) and consequently adjust to the brand new directives with out incurring vital fines.

Leverage the graph for alignment. Don’t put the spider graph in a drawer. Use its visible energy to speak the evolving positioning with the manager group and different items. Transparency and ease will reinforce alignment and readability inside the broader group.

. . .

In the long run, CSOs and govt groups have to assume very rigorously about what to do — and what might be accomplished in another way — to efficiently execute their firm’s sustainability agenda. Taking the time to visualise the CSO’s eight duties will assist make sure that the position is balanced, masking the totally different dimensions of sustainability.



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