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Are Chief Sustainability Officers on their Way Out?

Some businesses are rejecting the chief sustainability officer model, in the fear that such a position prevents sustainability getting embedded throughout the company’s operations, according to a white paper from Accenture.

The Chief Executive Officer’s Perspective (pdf), the first in Accenture’s Lessons from Leaders series, says that the CSO has risen significantly in prominence since 2004, when the first such position was created in the U.S. The key advantage of having such a position is that it clearly demonstrates sustainability’s importance to the organization, Accenture says.

But if such a position is to succeed, CEOs must ensure the sustainability function has enough clout to influence others. There is a danger that other units will assume that sustainability is “now someone else’s problem,” the paper said.

Given this challenge, some say that the CSO position is already being phased out.

GE is one company where, as an alternative, the CEO decentralizes sustainability across the management team, through ad-hoc incentives. GE France president and CEO Clara Gaymard says the company appoints leaders to run specific initiatives, such as its Ecomagination campaign. Otherwise, responsibility for sustainability is spread out across its leadership team.

At Accenture, an environmental steering group makes strategic recommendations on sustainability goals. Leadership then approves these recommendations, and CEO Pierre Nanterme delegates the company’s key sustainability objectives across its top leadership.

The white paper said there is no right or wrong way to assign responsibility for environmental goals and initiatives. The choice depends instead on the organization’s culture and how far along it is in adopting sustainability.

The white paper also said that to pursue sustainability, CEOs must strike a balance between short- and long-term considerations. They should consider whether volatility in stock markets actually provides an opportunity to take a longer-term view, instead of reacting to short-term pressures.

For example, some organizations are switching to publishing only half-year financial results – along with ongoing updates – so they appeal more to investors who care about long-term prospects. It’s unclear how this strategy will pan out over time and how investors will adapt, Accenture says.

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17 thoughts on “Are Chief Sustainability Officers on their Way Out?

  1. Sustainability, in itself, is a long term process and in order for it to become a successful part of any business it must be implemented into the structure of the company, so no matter who is implementing it, the lifestyle changes will remain even after leadership changes. I see the CSO as an outside consultant, if the day to day tasks are going to be carried out by management. There is no way these department heads will be able to bring the entire picture together in one cohesive execution.

  2. If this true at corporate level than the commitment was just window dressing in the end. One can divide among the general management but with no culture change it becomes just another line item and the corporate value of sustainability just slips into the sea of minor issues.Sad state of affairs if this happens.

  3. Makes sense. The business is most effective when is functions as an ecosystem; which means that the next best thing to occur is based on information that is ubiquitous. We only call the lion the king, because that makes sense in our hierarchical strategic planning model. When corporations move toward the strategic doing model, the lion is the lion.

  4. As with everything, the devil is in the details – I have seen both scenarios. One question is the PURPOSE of the CSO. If that role is related more to integration functions or quality control functions (tied to triple bottom line impacts) – or if the company has extensive tracking and reporting relative to those impacts, the role of the CSO has specific functions for sure. It goes without saying that if the CSO is the company’s ONLY commitment to institutionalizing/managing sustainability, then it is a waste. If the CSO is part of a short or long terms strategy to create a de-centralized model in which the CSOs role changes over time, then it has value. I believe it is also possible to achieve success without a ‘title’ in this position, but the responsibilities must be taken by some form of an accountability structure. In many cases, its a transitionary role either in name or in purpose (but transitions can take a looong time, especially in large companies!)

  5. Like IT and other functions, you need someone to take ownership at Corporate level and drive syneries through business(es), across countries. The CSO needs to have a seat at table like CFO, CIO, etc.
    It seems right now, it is viewed as a cost center, which needs to chnage too being considerd as a business imperative. Especially, one needs innovation and maturing of the function instead of band-aid, short-term solutions

  6. To further support the logic presented by Barbra and Binny, it makes sense to have an accountable individual from a systems perspective – much like we see the “management representative” in strategic management systems approaches. Without this individual, coordinated and systematic efforts across the organization that are designed for synergy (like EcoMagination) can be alotogether impossible. However, if this individual is more “responsible” for execution as opposed to “accountable” for coordination and strategic plan development across business units or silo’s (that are “responsible” for execution), the position is doomed to failure. It would be the equivalent of expecting regional finance executives to manage the business without delegation into the organization and coordination by a CFO. Much of this can be done by policy and by embedding it in other positions for sure, but as the organization gets “very large” it can be critical to have a person focusing on ensuring various efforts are both effective and coordinated through a strategic plan.

  7. I think the title of the article is slightly misleading, in that it suggests that the CSO concept is now being considered a mistake by business and should be removed. In reality, all this article is saying that is in GE and Accenture (which, in fairness to them, are world leaders in business management structures) they have developed a different system that works for them.

    In my view, the CSO is a very much needed role in many companies because while they will not have the same level of clout at the top-table as some of their peers (like the CFO, for example), they can provide a strategic, holistic viewpoint on the organisation’s sustainability, can constantly push the organisation to be more sustainable, and get board-level buy-in which is absolutely essential.

    Each company is obviously unique, but I feel the private sector would as a whole be further ahead in terms of sustainability if there were more CSO roles in business.

  8. While Honest Tea’s mission is embedded in our product and we refer to it as our “Mission in a Bottle”, we’ve found that it’s helpful to have someone in the organization to help motivate, coordinate and monitor progress. If there’s a CSO at Honest Tea, it’s our CEO, or “TeaEO” in our case – but in order to guide the exploration for change and then motivate and monitor progress, our Deputy Chief of Mission is a member of the senior management team and helps create opportunities for the entire team to challenge the status quo. Our DCM is charged with understanding and implementing our mission across the company.

  9. I suppose, since we have reached this point in sustainable management, the sustainability officer, or whatever the company wants to call him, is an expert in sustainability matters, just as a company’s legal adviser is the expert in legal matters. I tend to think all company plans, decisions etc. should go through the sustainability officer, as much as they go through the legal adviser, before approval.

  10. Sustainability in a corporation should not be managed by an individual nor by a department. It is a concept that must be imbedded in all of the company’s departments. However, for this to happen, it must come from the top, and, perhaps, that could be the role of the CSO. If all the departments and employees truly understand sustainability, it will be put into practice at the company, in the community, and at home. This is critical for the future of our earth.

  11. You have to have some accountability for driving sustainability within an organization. You also have responsibilities for program development, customer engagement, and sustainability in the supply chain. Sustainability data management and reporting is another important aspect of sustainability that must be managed. It seems that someone within an organization does have to direct these activities or they will will never get done. What you call that person or function is up to the organization.

  12. The question is provocative, and rightly so. Sustainability may follow the arc of Environmental, Safety, Security, and Quality. These functions began as centralized, and many activities eventually worked their way into standard practices at all levels of the organization. The functions remain sufficiently complex such that functional leaders remain at Corporate or somewhere in the organization, so they can track changes in drivers, requirements, risks, and innovations. The same is likely to happen for Sustainability. The number and variety of stakeholders, drivers, expectations (and the potential for conflict among them), data needs, and relationships with other functions (Accounting, IT, Operations, Marketing, etc.) create a more complex situation than Safety, for example. I believe a better solution is to sharpen the focus of roles and responsibilities for CSO and others throughout the organization.

  13. My first qualm with this article while reading it, was realizing that the article really wasn’t so much about corporations doing away with the CSO position, the article (as Neil Walmsley stated earlier) really is about some corporations simply handling it differently. In fact the white paper was even quoted in this article as saying “There is no right or wrong way to assign responsibility for environmental goals and initiatives. The choice depends instead on the organization’s culture and how far along it is in adopting sustainability.” Thus, what I find most disturbing, is the fact that the article’s title is not only misleading, but it’s actually sensationalistic to a degree, as it attempts to grab the reader’s attention with these supposed extreme “all-or-nothing” actions that some corporations are supposedly doing – eliminating CSO positions. Sadly, by using this strategy to catch more eyeballs scanning the daily articles of interest, Sustainability in general takes a hit and is left with people such as ourselves having been put in a place to defend the value of retaining a CSO position. So here we are fighting again about why it’s important to care about the planet really, that’s what it really comes down to again and again. As such, I really see these corporations (that are perhaps considering doing away with the CSO position), as not really believing in Sustainability, not willing to walk their talk, and instead caring more about getting rid of one more high level salary and one more employee, and dividing up the loot between the execs and the shareholders. Doing away with the CSO position is the opposite of visionary, it’s going back to Business As Usual. Same old, same old.

  14. I am not sure if I agree with the results of this research . Sustainability (CSR) in a corporation should not be managed by an individual nor by a department. It is a concept that in mature organizations imbedded in all of the company’s departments . However, for this to happen there is a need of an executive committee and strong commitment from the CEO. CSOs role is mainly coordination and we have seen a lot of positive results when all above requirements are met, in all Large organizations we have work with the last years globally.
    Of course the CSO should have the appropriate authorities, knowledge and awareness for all key sustainability risks and opportunities in order to coordinate effectively.
    I suggest that the next Accenture survey should focus on the lack of Executives actual commitment and understanding of Sustainability!

  15. I entirely disagree with this paper. The CSO is not only here to stay but stronger than ever. The bottom line is that a CSO is necessary in the 21st century and the individual in that role must in my opinion have a science degree to understand the issues at hand. This is not a job for a MBA alone.

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