Sustainability Officers expanded responsibilities to strategic lynchpins

Posted on Oct 30 2014 - 8:25pm by Sustainable News

Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) have expanded their responsibilities from internal program managers to strategic lynchpins who guide corporate strategy, identify product innovation opportunities, and orchestrate sustainability initiatives both inside and outside the company.

The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization

The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization

The conclusion is based on The Weinreb Group’s follow-up report on Chief Sustainability Officers titled CSO Back Story II: The Evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer. The report identifies 36 executives working for U.S. headquartered publicly-traded companies that hold the official title of “Chief Sustainability Officer”. On average, these CSOs have been at their company for 10 years when they are tapped for the role and 86% are tapped internally as opposed to being hired from outside the company.

“Today, CSOs extend sustainability to all aspects of their businesses, especially where company-led innovation and feedback from external stakeholders leads to growth and value creation,” said Ellen Weinreb, President of the Weinreb Group.

“Women also are leaping into the CSO ranks, making up 42% — up 52% in just three years,” she added.



The role of the CSO has transitioned from a focus on the tactical implementation of environmental and social initiatives toward an emphasis on delivering benefit and value for stakeholders and shareholders simultaneously.

Duke Energy CSO Shawn Heath said “A sustainability department has enabled the company to refine its focus on sustainability issues…all done in the spirit of finding ways to deliver enhanced stakeholder value.”


Thinking beyond incremental improvements, CSOs are spearheading innovation in order to meet the need for sustainably designed products and processes that meet radically different criteria.

Alcoa CSO Kevin McKnight said that establishing a CSO role “prompted people to think more broadly about everything that sustainability entails. Environmental impacts are still a significant piece, but we are also focused on product innovation.”


CSOs are actively engaged in signaling the company’s commitment to sustainability across multiple channels. Communication of the sustainability agenda to external stakeholders, such as customers and the media, as well as internal stakeholders, such as employees, is a critical responsibility of the CSO.

“We know that those who know about our sustainability efforts are more likely to trust us and become loyal customers,” said Bea Perez, CSO of The Coca-Cola Company.


Regardless of its hierarchical position, the CSO role touches the business at all levels and works across organizational pillars. The CSO moves seamlessly from collaborating with employees across the business to influencing the company’s core vision and strategy

The CSO title has opened doors: Karthrin Winkler, CSO at EMC, said it gave “access to execs and policies;” Jane Okun Bomba of IHS, Inc., benefits from “more board engagement;” PG&E’s Ezra Garrett said that CSOs “can critically influence the development of the company’s vision and goal;” while MGM’s Cindy Ortega said she has a “seat at the table in developing company strategy.”


The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization. By embedding sustainability into all corners of the business, the CSO empowers business leaders to own the company’s sustainability achievements.

Charlene Lake, CSO at AT&T, said: “No business is truly sustainable without the buy-in and hard work of leaders throughout the company. To credit any one title with the success would create a setback to our progress and cause.”

CSO Back Story II can be found at This 2014 report updates a 2011 research report titled CSO Back Story: How Chief Sustainability Officers Reached the C-Suite. Both reports were conducted by the Weinreb Group, an executive search and consulting firm that specializes in the sustainability and corporate responsibility marketplace.

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