C-suite job built around ESG struggles to find footing


The Conference Board has published a report mapping out the issues that CSOs face when they try to implement a company’s sustainability agenda. — Bloomberg

New York: As more companies add chief sustainability officers (CSOs) to their senior ranks, what these executives actually do and who they report to is far from consistent.

The Conference Board, a US-based think tank that examines global corporate trends, has published a report mapping out the issues that CSOs face when they try to implement a company’s sustainability agenda.

The findings offer a glimpse into the workings of a C-suite role that largely didn’t exist until five years ago.

After surveying more than 100 sustainability executives at US companies, the Conference Board found that only one-third of CSOs report directly to the chief executive officer.

And just 31% of those surveyed said their sustainability programmes are “fully integrated” throughout their organisations, largely because roughly two-thirds of the companies have only had a CSO in place for less than five years.

There’s little doubt the job of the CSO is gaining prominence as more companies recognise the long-term value that can occur by focusing on “the benefits of sustainability for the business and society”, said Nathalie Risse, senior researcher at the Conference Board’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) centre.

But still, there remains some confusion about the precise role that a CSO plays. A paper published last year by the Harvard Business Review found that “despite good intentions – and widespread acceptance of the importance of sustainability there is still a lack of clarity about a CSO’s tasks and accountabilities.”

CSOs have eight key focus areas, ranging from ensuring regulatory compliance and fostering cultural change to ensuring ESG considerations are embedded into processes and decision making, according to the Harvard review.

The CSOs surveyed by the Conference Board said their biggest challenge is “organising to execute the sustainability strategy”, which only works if there’s full-throated support from the chief executive officer and the rest of the C-suite. — Bloomberg

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