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ESG is rewriting the job description for CSOs

The Weinreb Group’s latest report on the state of the profession underscores the rising influence of women but a troubling lack of diversity.

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2020 marked the most disruptive year in generations. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic kill more than a half million people in the United States, it laid bare and heightened existing crises, including systemic racism and police violence, climate change and an ever-widening political and economic divide. 

As we hit the midway point of 2021, the country has begun a period of reckoning, repair and rebuilding that requires leadership from every arena — government, civil society and, of course, the business world. Within companies, the primary person responsible for understanding and defining how a company will respond to these pressing social and environmental issues is the chief sustainability officer.

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Who are these CSOs, what are they responsible for and which issues do they think will take hold as we look to the future of sustainable business? Most critically, do they have the required skills and authority to solve our most wicked problems? My company’s new report, "The Chief Sustainability Officer 10 Years Later: The Rise of ESG in the C-Suite," answers these questions, providing an in-depth look at CSOs today and their powerful role in business.

"Ten years later" is a reference to Weinreb Group’s seminal CSO Back Story published a decade ago. Since then, the world of sustainability has changed significantly. The CSO role has undergone profound shifts — expanding beyond a focus on the "E" of ESG and the climate crisis to include social justice and equity, recognizing the intersectionality of all these enormously complex challenges.

Today there are:

  • More CSOs who have more influence. With investors driving environmental, social and governance (ESG) integration, the field has grown by more than 228 percent, from just 29 CSOs in 2011 to 95 CSOs in 2021. Perhaps because of the ever-growing and changing social and environmental risks, opportunities and stakeholder demands, about one-third of these CSOs assumed their position as their company’s first CSO in 2020. But even before 2020, the rising investor interest in sustainability issues was driving the expansion of the field, as well as the integration of ESG priorities into business.
  • More women, but little racial diversity. Who occupies the CSO job also has changed. Our research reveals that the percentage of women in this post almost doubled. Women  hold 54 percent of CSO positions, up from 28 percent in 2011. Despite the movement toward gender balance, there remains very little racial diversity. The CSO position, as well as the sustainability profession as a whole, remains predominantly white.
  • Larger, more dispersed teams and embedded functions. In the past 10 years, the CSO leadership role and team composition also have changed. In the corporate leadership hierarchy, CSOs are not quite as close as they once were to the CEO. Still, nearly 70 percent of CSOs told us they meet with their CEO fairly regularly, once a month or once a week. Moreover, sustainability teams are expanding, with the average team size increasing from five in 2011 to 15 today. We also found embedded sustainability practitioners in other functions outside of sustainability. 

As a sustainability recruiting firm, Weinreb Group’s aim is to support the hiring of sustainability leaders in corporate sustainability positions. To that end, the purpose of this report is twofold: We hope that by sharing information about who these people are, what they do and what makes them successful, sustainability managers will be better able to chart their career paths. We also hope these insights help the growing number of companies that are appointing CSOs understand how best to position this role and find the best person for the job.

By the numbers and issues, it is clear that the CSO role is having its moment. These are the people defining a vision of a sustainable future, developing strategies and targets to meet that vision, and leading business to make progress on the crises of 2020 — and the social and environmental challenges yet to come.

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