In Search of the Elusive Chief Sustainability Officer

As a corporate social responsibility (CSR) recruiter, I study CSR job postings and titles. For the past six years, I've been keeping a spreadsheet of CSR-related job postings. Last month I published my biennial CSR Jobs Report, which identifies hiring trends in the field.

One of the most notable findings is the increase in senior-level corporate positions -- those with VP and Director titles. Before 2006, none of the job postings had a title of VP or above. What's changed? Companies are placing an increased value on CSR as a component of corporate strategy, which elevates the importance of positions overseeing CSR. Dave Stangis, Vice President of CSR and Sustainability at Campbell's Soup, says: "The emergence of the VP of CSR and VP of Sustainability titles seems proof of the growing strategic business position of CSR."

But, why stop at Vice President? How high can the title go? What about a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)? Can CSR find a place in the C-Suite?

It was a reporter who first brought the CSO title to my attention. She had called to interview me for an article on the emergence of CSOs. I told her that, as a sustainability recruiter with 13 years experience in CSR, I had never met a CSO. The article was dropped.

Intrigued, I checked further and found that the media has used CSO title to refer to the senior-most person in charge of corporate social responsibility, even when the position had a different title. For example, an article headlined, Meet Google's Chief Sustainability Officer, turned out to be about a 26-year-old who implemented some pretty cool greening strategies, but her title was Corporate Environmental Programs Manager.

Recently, I decided to conduct my own search for the CSO as well as to create my own definition of the role. It turns out that Chief Sustainability Officers do exist.

In my definition, CSO is not simply the senior-most CSR professional for a company. Rather, the individual 1) holds the title Chief Sustainability Officer, 2) sits amongst the top leaders of the company to make key strategic decisions and 3) is listed on the company's 10-K, the SEC filing that identifies the corporation's accountability to shareholders. These final two points are particularly important as they suggest that Sustainability is owned at the top and integral to strategic decision-making.

On LinkedIn, I searched two groups to find some CSO's. There are 4 CSO's in the group Sustainability Executive NeTwork (SENT) out of 415 total members. And, there are 3 CSOs out of 75 members of the Chief Sustainability Officers Network.

In searching all 10-K's, though, I found just 2 CSO's: David Clary from Albermarle Corporation and Frank O'Brien-Bernini from Owens Corning. I also found that those with the CSO title typically had one or more additional titles. Below are some of the CSO's I found.

Name Company Full title

Frank O'Brien-Bernini

Owens Corning

Vice President & Chief Sustainability Officer

David Clary Albermarle Corp

Vice President & Chief Sustainability Officer

Linda Fisher* Dupont

Vice President DuPont Safety, Health & Environment

Chief Sustainability Officer

David Kepler Dow

Executive Vice President, Business Services,

Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Information Officer

* An executive but not a member of the CEO's office.

 

It is no coincidence that all of these are from the chemical and buildings industry.

Their titles make them responsible for not only greening their own operations but also greening their products. Just as CSR titles began to proliferate a decade ago, the CSO title will become more common as companies follow their competitors' lead.

I believe that "CSO" is a title that senior-most CSR executives will increasingly carry. They will achieve this not by their individual might and muster, but because more of their peers at competing companies have taken on the title. Should this become industry best practice, questionnaires, surveys and shareholder resolutions will nudge the title further along.

Owens Corning CSO, Frank O'Brien-Bernini, says this about the position:

The emergence of the CSO title is indicative of the growing trend of sustainability as a core business strategy. Sustainability is most effective when its execution is embedded throughout the organization, however, like all "Chief" roles, it's critical that there is a distinct accountability for functional excellence…and that a high, wide and deep sustainability perspective is integral to the executive leadership team where key decisions are made and strategic direction is set.

After all, few big companies operate without a CEO, COO (chief operating officer) and CFO (chief financial officer). Many have CMOs (chief marketing officer). When they are joined in the C-Suite by the CSO, we'll know that sustainability has finally become integral to the core of business.

Ellen Weinreb is the CEO of Sustainability Recruiting, a search firm based in Berkeley focusing on sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship jobs.

This post originally appeared on GreenBiz.com senior writer Marc Gunther's blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user MrHayata.