CSOs are Everywhere, But Are Their Days Numbered?

My recently released report CSO Back Story explored the somewhat amorphous title of chief sustainability officer. As GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower noted earlier this week, "the elevation of sustainability inside companies is in large part a testament to the commitment and resourcefulness of CSOs and their ilk" Weinreb Group's research shows the senior-most sustainability leader trending more senior over time -- as high as the chief title.

But where is this profession headed? Is the growing prominence of the Chief Sustainability Officer a sign that an executive-level position dedicated to sustainability is here to stay? There is a spectrum of possibilities. One on end, the position can disappear -- sustainability could be embedded in the culture, self-governed and owned by everyone. In the middle, the function can remain in the hands of the chief sustainability office. On the other end, the position could be held by the CEO.

The Obsolescence End of the Spectrum

EMC's CSO Kathrin Winkler strives for the obsolescence end of the spectrum. Nothing will be more satisfactory than her title becoming obsolete one day. She envisions a corporation where sustainability is as obvious and intuitive as operational efficiency. After all, who doesn't want an efficiently run business?

The other side of the spectrum, however, is that the sustainability role breaks the final frontier of corporate hierarchy and becomes the responsibility of the CEO.

Examples exist in the "CEO as CSO" camp -- but none are perfect fits.

The CEO as CSO End of the Spectrum

Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent has often emphasized that as a CEO, sustainability is part of his job. In a recent interview with Forbes, he said that he considers himself the company's CSO, adding, "I have not appointed another one and never will. That's me" His reasoning: "That's my responsibility. It starts at the top and it is driven and permeates through the entire organization from the top"

Well, he may have misread his crystal ball on at least one point there: This summer, Coca-Cola Enterprises appointed Bea Perez as its first Chief Sustainability Officer.

But over the years, Kent's determination to lead sustainability from the top has helped establish the beverages producer as a compelling leader in addressing social and environmental issues like water scarcity, recycling, and stakeholder engagement.

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