What’s behind this growing trend: Chief Sustainability Officer

7 maart 2023 | What's Hot | 6 min read

Skillsoft recently published our first Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. As part of our research, we uncovered that 46% of survey respondents believe their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts are replacing their CSR efforts. The data got us thinking more deeply about sustainability—often accounted for under the “E” of ESG, and how it is managed.

The quest for quantifiable data that measures progress against sustainability goals is accelerating as regulatory, consumer, and employee pressure mounts.

  • According to a survey from IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV), 71% of employees and employment seekers say that environmentally sustainable companies are more attractive employers.
  • The same study showed that 55% of consumers describe sustainability as “very” or “extremely important” to them when choosing a brand. This is a full 22% higher than consumers surveyed pre-COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In addition, regulations continue to advance. For example, on January 5, 2023, enforcement began on the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which standardizes reporting on sustainability for large companies in the European Union (EU). And in the United States, the office of the Federal Chief Sustainability Officer, states that part of its Net-Zero Emissions Procurement by 2050 initiative will “require major Federal suppliers to publicly disclose emissions and set reduction targets” if they hope to do business with the Federal Government. These are just two examples of the many that are propagating around the world. (We won’t even mention the SEC enforcement of ESG disclosures.)

All of this to say that the appointment of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) is becoming more necessary, and thus more common, throughout organizations across the globe. While the first Chief Sustainability Officer was hired by Dupont in 2004, only recently has there been a jump in hiring for this role. This is because organizations are responding to the pressure from regulatory bodies, customers, and employees by hiring a full-time leader to focus on, manage, and enhance sustainability initiatives.

Do you need to hire a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)?

In 2021, we saw a significant jump in the number of companies appointing a CSO. The number of CSOs holding an executive-level position, alongside board members, hit 28% in 2021—more than tripling from 9% in 2016..While the data for 2022 is still be collected, we expect it to show growth as it did last year. What’s more, CSOs are increasingly pulling a seat up to the executive table.

More critically, there is a clear correlation between assignment of a CSO and attainment of sustainability goals. A PwC study found that virtually all, 98%, of companies with a top sustainability rating by third-party assessment, had an executive with at least some sustainability responsibility.

Like all things in business, if you want to make significant strides, it is important to put someone in a position of accountability to drive particular initiatives forward. Elevating the CSO role to an executive position demonstrates organizations’ commitment to sustainability in a meaningful way.


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What does a Chief Sustainability Officer do?

The CSO works across the leadership team, employees, customers, and other interested parties, such as suppliers, to build a vision and plan for environmental responsibility. They catalyze the actions needed across the organization and report on progress against the company’s overall vision.

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, summarizes the position well: “The chief sustainability officer, sometimes known by other titles, is the corporate title of an executive position within a corporation that is in charge of the corporation's ‘environmental’ programs.”

Responsibilities often include:

  • Assess and monitor environmental impact across the organization. This includes setting measurable goals that inform both regulatory and internal reporting standards.
  • Educate department leaders on their role in meeting sustainability goals and proactively set policy to aid implementation of more sustainable practices.
  • Galvanize employees to seek out and support new ways of reducing their environmental impact across the organization.
  • Develop company policy related to improved sustainability efforts across the enterprise, including setting standards for supplier selection and energy consumption.
  • Prioritize investments to meet both sustainability and business goals by creating an impact framework that can be applied across projects and functions.

What skills do successful CSOs need?

A CSO’s goal may sound simple – minimize the organization’s environmental footprint – but the systems, policies, and processes they build to address that vision are anything but straightforward.

To be a great CSO you will need to develop and foster a wide spectrum of skills.

  • An understanding of sustainability principles is essential for this role. A successful CSO must understand the interaction of economic, social, and environmental factors.
  • CSOs set a company-wide vision and must influence action through education and policy, rather than having direct authority over all impacted employees. Exceptional collaboration skills are a must. This includes building empathy within their team and across the company.
  • The ability to clearly document the likely impact and business benefit of programs is essential as CSOs apply for grants and manage the allocation of internal resources.
  • Data is at the foundation of effective sustainability programs. A CSO must possess strong analytical skills that connect challenges with actions that can mitigate risk.
  • Visionary, creative thinking is necessary to inspire sustainable progress. A CSO won’t know the solution to every opportunity that presents itself, but they must be able to inspire others across the company to act. While the CSO should be familiar with effective models, and common-sense practices, truly long-term results require creative solutions to everyday activities. A successful CSO must hone these skills in themselves and in the others around them.

Sustainability learning opportunities worth exploring

With increased focus on sustainability, quality learning opportunities are available to CSOs and others who want to champion a sustainable vision at their organizations. Programs should be made available for sustainability leaders, but also for every employee in your organization. The more people who support your vision, the easier it will be to drive policy adoption.

  • The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) offers two certification options that are acknowledged globally. One certificate recognizes core competency with sustainability practices; the other recognizes more advanced sustainability knowledge and skills.
  • At Skillsoft we have partnered with expert instructors to deliver multiple courses and an Aspire Journey dedicated to sustainable business learning. These self-paced courses make it easy to build a strong foundation that can help all employees across the organization become better stewards of the environment and your organization’s goals.
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Professional: This certification is offered by the US Green Building Council and is recognized internationally as a standard for sustainable building design.
  • ISO 14001: This internationally recognized certification is for environmental management systems.

Don’t forget to include a comprehensive approach to leadership skills development to hone communication and collaboration basics that will allow a CSO to thrive.

Like you, we believe in holding ourselves accountable for protecting our environment. We hope you will join us on the journey. A copy of Skillsoft’s 2022 ESG Impact Report can be read here.