What is a Chief Sustainability Officer
Sustainability has to be part of every company’s strategy.
For larger corporations, this is often the responsibility of the Chief Sustainability Officer or Chief Strategy Officer. For this Green Business Bureau article, we’ll refer to this role as CSO. In some cases, it represents two people, but in many cases, the Chief Strategy Officer or Head of Strategy is responsible for the sustainability strategy as well.
According to SHRM.org, a Chief Sustainability Officer will work with managers, employees, customers, and shareholders to address the organization’s approach to environmental and social responsibility with the goal to minimize the company’s environmental impact while supporting its workers and community. This “head of sustainability” role oversees the overall execution, mission, and efficacy of the company’s sustainability program that addresses various environmental concerns including energy use, conservation, reduction of pollution, recycling, building, and facility design, and general education on sustainability.
Defining a Sustainability Strategy and Mission
A company’s mission statement defines the purpose of a business for investors and consumers. For a sustainable business, this mission statement must showcase organizational goals beyond making a profit. It must include a purpose. It must answer the questions “why do we exist” and “how are we giving back to society and protecting the environment”.
Becoming a sustainable business starts with establishing sustainability priorities, coming up with a strategy and formally writing a sustainability mission statement. The Green Business Bureau notes that a sustainability or green mission statement becomes the foundation of a company’s sustainability efforts. It provides the organization and its stakeholders with an understanding of what’s most important and what your company can do to protect the natural world and be more socially responsible.
Implementing a Sustainability Strategy
Yet, how can a business establish such a sustainability mission at its core?
How can a business manage operations and ensure every organizational process aligns with the sustainable mission statement?
How can a business build a supportive culture to drive the business’s mission?
A Chief Sustainability or Strategy Officer’s role and primary responsibility is to formulate a business strategy, and then manage that strategy in consistency with the corporate vision and mission. For the sustainable business, that strategy and overarching mission includes sustainability, which ultimately evolved the role of the Chief Strategy Office to include a Chief Sustainability Office.
The aim of a CSO is to minimize an eco-friendly brand’s impact by creating specific environmentally focused plans and working with people at all company levels. The CSO rallies sustainability across every operational area, building a green culture. When a business falls short of its green objectives, it’s the CSO that takes the wheel to orientate the business back on track.
Chief Sustainability Officer Challenges
The role of the CSO is evolving rapidly, taking on more responsibilities than ever before. Here are some of the common challenges organizations face related to their sustainability strategy and program.
1. The strategic plan is outdated
Eco-friendly businesses that are more than a few years old may have outdated strategic plans. Technology and resources to help the environment are constantly evolving. A CSO will reflect on the company’s milestones and gauge the company’s next best steps. Staying up to date with resources and leaders that fight climate change will ensure a green company’s progress because they’re in touch with who’s helping the planet and how.
2. No one enforces the plan
A green company may create a strategic plan that aligns with its sustainability mission statement, but people in leadership positions can grow too comfortable within their roles. This results in a corporate problem called groupthink, which is a dangerous possibility for executive teams.
Groupthink happens when C-suite members form cohesive mindsets that lack personal accountability enforcement by those around them. Someone must hold them to the company’s sustainable goals so executives don’t make decisions that would stray from its green values.
CSOs regularly follow up on their company-specific plans to judge their progress as a whole. If the brand isn’t meeting its sustainable goals, the CSO would then create solutions for any unforeseen challenges.
They also enforce neglected responsibilities among C-suite members who have lost sight of the company’s vision. This is incredibly helpful for sustainable businesses because the line between environmental commitment and revenue sometimes becomes blurred.
3. Management Can’t Agree on Strategies
There’s most often more than one person in charge of a company’s strategy. The executive management team may have differing visions for the most effective sustainable business strategies that complicate how long it takes to accomplish the brand’s mission statement or other goals.
CSOs frequently pull different departments together to make comprehensive eco-friendly company strategies. They may partner with a company’s chief sustainability officer to align green mission statements and plans for increasing the brand’s target audience or revenue.
Any future company plans that aren’t inherently sustainable won’t hinder existing green strategies or the paths to accomplish them. The CSO will weave them across departments to parallel each business strategy with its green values.
4. Financial Plans Lack Actionable Steps
Businesses always have quarterly targets and annual budgets, but those don’t qualify as strategies. They don’t inherently have actionable steps within those plans to ensure continual progress. A green company’s CSO will create the steps needed to reach and exceed each financial expectation while supporting the planet.
They might review each budgetary goal and recommend industry-specific software to drive revenue with consumer data that’s more relevant than past surveys or general market research. Simultaneously, the CSO would recommend green energy alternatives for computers using that software or carbon offsetting programs the brand could donate to.
The CSO could also rework the numbers and point out more realistic goals based on the company’s current size and sustainability projections remaining in the year. It depends on what the executive team puts together for the brand’s financial future.
5. The Market Feels Unknown
Markets will always change. It’s one of the few dependable parts of any industry. Executive teams may feel out of touch with new environmentally friendly market dynamics because they don’t have time to watch trends and predict outcomes. They may also feel surprised when changes are related to market fluctuations or newly published studies related to global warming.
Chief strategy officers understand these factors of running a green business. They know what talents to look for in team members who will analyze this information routinely and present reports. The CSO will translate the findings for other C-suite members so their company can keep up with or stay ahead of the planet’s needs, what consumers want, and their market.
6. Stakeholders Mention Miscommunication
Sometimes stakeholders encounter miscommunication between C-suite members and themselves. It can happen for various reasons, but it’s much more common when the company’s main strategy or plan isn’t working.
The disconnect between a sustainable brand’s mission statement and business decisions will confuse investors about the company’s vision or the plan to accomplish quarterly environmental goals. A CSO conveys that information by editing out industry jargon and sending messages through commonly used platforms like email. The improved communication saves time, keeps investors informed, and aligns each strategy with the business’s green values.
Consider Hiring a Chief Sustainability Officer
Sustainable companies should hire a CSO if the leadership team recognizes the challenges and red flags we’ve discussed within their company. Strategy and sustainability experts can easily fix them and prevent them from happening again without taking any focus away from the brand’s environmental goals.
A company’s lead recruiters can field applicants for the CSO position after posting about them on recruiting websites. Candidates with business administration and environmental studies education would best understand the job’s responsibilities.
Senior recruiters may also prefer to scout competitors and find people within CSO positions who may be interested in leaving for a better opportunity. They would have the most recent experience with industry trends and practice in formulating policy goals.
The best candidates will become personally invested in a green company’s mission statement and values. Dedication combined with education and experience will result in a CSO ready to lead on their first day.
Adding Sustainability To Your Strategy Office’s Responsibilities
For some companies, there may not be a need to hire another executive focused entirely on sustainability. Large companies may have a Chief Strategy Officer or Head of Strategy that is more than capable of becoming the sustainability strategy leader. Some universities are now offering Masters Programs in Sustainability. Most universities offer some sort of sustainability courses. There are also consultants at the Big Five firms and sustainability consultancies that can be brought in to mentor your strategy leader.
Regardless of whether you add a new executive to the executive team to focus on sustainability or expand the role of an executive already on the team, it’s critical someone is assigned the “head of sustainability” and CSO role at your company.
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy, and more.