C-Suite Job Built Around ESG Struggles to Find Its Footing

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

Bloomberg
Updated28 May 2024
C-Suite Job Built Around ESG Struggles to Find Its Footing
C-Suite Job Built Around ESG Struggles to Find Its Footing

(Bloomberg) -- As more companies add chief sustainability officers 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 programs are “fully integrated” throughout their organizations, 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 recognize 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 ESG center. 

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 environmental, social and governance 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 “organizing to execute the sustainability strategy,” which only works if there’s full-throated support from the CEO and the rest of the C-suite.

The most effective sustainability teams have CSOs with longer tenure and who report directly to the CEO or other C-suite executives, according to the Conference Board report. CSOs who work with sustainability-steering committees also tend to be more successful in their roles, the survey found.

The expectation is that the list of tasks covered by CSOs will grow in the next three to five years because of increasing sustainability-linked regulations as well as pressure from investors, customers and other stakeholders to address topics such as climate change, water scarcity and human rights.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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