The sustainability profession is thriving, and leaders are driving the integration of ESG into business strategy with promising results. Amid rapid developments in corporate sustainability, including new regulations, the role of the CSO is changing too.
In our 2023 CSO report, we asked chief sustainability officers about the attributes they needed to be effective in their role, and these three attributes took the lead: corporate chameleon; strategy and vision; and influence without authority.
Looking back at 2023, were we right about these attributes? And what else will CSOs need to succeed in 2024? I checked in with several CSOs to find out.
Prioritize actions and resources
The stronger economic outlook for the industry is supporting deeper investment in sustainability, and it’s clear that the CSO’s involvement in setting the strategy and allocating capital is critical. David Rabuano, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Owens Corning, explains: "Now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, we are making decisions that require significant spending and people resources."
At the start of 2023, Jill Kolling, vice president, ESG and chief sustainability officer at James Hardie, pointed out that materiality is critical, amid pressure and interest from the investor community. She believes this is still the case: "Prioritization and balancing of resources will be key for 2024… We will be challenged to balance execution toward our commitments against complying with mandatory disclosures."
Rabuano agrees: "CSOs need to be able to sequence areas of focus in ways that lead to the biggest impact while protecting their teams. We know our biggest levers for impact, and shifting resources there will feel different next year, and will lead to more impactful results."
Integrate sustainability with the business — especially the finance function
To meet growing regulatory requirements, CSOs need to be "solutions-oriented in the face of challenging economic conditions," says Sophie Beckham, vice president, chief sustainability officer at International Paper. This involves being a corporate chameleon. "[Systems integration] requires business acumen, strong relationships with non-sustainability elements of the business and a certain amount of creativity," Beckham adds.
Similarly, Michael Kobori, Starbucks’ chief sustainability officer, emphasizes that "given the velocity with which investors, regulators, customers and employees are demanding sustainability, the ability to integrate sustainability into every function, business unit and board committee will be crucial to future success."
Erin Meezan, chief sustainability officer at JLL, underscores the importance of embedding ESG considerations into other functions. For example, Meezan pointed to her work greenlighting the hire of an ESG controller. "We’re working closely with finance to define attributes for candidates, map out early priorities and make sure that the shared goal of credible ESG data influences the design and priorities of this role."
Bring nuance into relationships and actions
To integrate sustainability in this way, CSOs will need solid relationship management skills. As Nancy Mahon, chief sustainability and ESG officer at Estée Lauder, shares, "A CSO’s agility, understanding of company culture and strong relationships with key leaders will be critical to success" in this endeavor.
Anisa Kamadoli Costa, chief sustainability officer at Rivian, says one attribute she has always viewed as essential to success will be more important than ever in 2024: nuance. Noting carbon neutral claims, the ESG backlash and the political climate, she says, "a little nuance would do all of us some good," adding that team management "requires more thoughtfulness, kindness and nuance than ever."
Tara Hemmer, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at WM, highlights similar skills for the coming year. "In this era, CSOs need to be educators, integrators and influencers within their organizations, and these three skills are pivotal to the future of the function."
Continue to evolve
The number of CSOs has grown dramatically — from 29 to 183 — since we started tracking it in 2011, and thanks to the dynamic sustainability landscape, the scope of the role continues to evolve. Emerging regulations are bringing a greater focus on materiality, data and transparency and bringing sustainability into the boardroom. New technologies, including artificial intelligence, have emerged to support this; I’ll be writing about this in a future article, so stay tuned.
I’ve shared insights from several CSOs here, showing how the attributes they need to succeed have changed just this year. We continue to track this role through research, surveys and interviews; you can follow the latest findings on the CSO Hub.