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Four types of CSOs? Not so fast

There are four types of approaches to sustainability, and certain companies are doing well taking one of these paths.

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Image via Shutterstock/Marekuliasz

As often happens when consumer or general business publications weigh in about corporate sustainability, as with a recent article in Fortune identifying the four types of sustainability leaders, they often miss the mark. Given my 15 years leading the GreenBiz Executive Network, where more than 250 companies have been members at one time or another, along with the thousands of CSOs I’ve spoken with over the years, I’m here to set the record straight.

The very idea of a specific type of CSO is itself off the mark (more on this later). These types of fawning articles give far too much credit to chief sustainability officers with too little context as to what the role entails. Without strong management and board support, it is nearly impossible to lead an impactful sustainability program. So, let’s flip the premise and posit that there are four types of approaches to sustainability, and certain companies are doing well taking one of these paths.

Let’s call the first category Enablers. These companies, whether by happenstance or design, provide products and services that help the rest of us be more sustainable. Recognizing the existential threat of climate change, companies such as Ecolab and Trane have leaned into business strategies and product offerings that help their customers reduce GHG emissions and other environmental impacts.

A second category might best be characterized as Strongarms. These companies use their influence to make significant numbers of other companies more sustainable. For example, Walmart’s Project Gigaton aims to reduce or avoid 1 billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gases from its and its suppliers’ value chains by 2030. CalSTRS, the pension fund with more than $300 billion under management, has made the commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its portfolio by 2050 or sooner, providing access to capital for corporations with a similar goal.

Pioneers comprise our third category. These are companies that have the financial wherewithal and a reputation strategy that allows them to invest in innovation related to sustainability. They were the early adopters who paid a premium for renewable energy. Now tech companies such as Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify and Meta have created the Frontier initiative, an advance market commitment to buy an initial $925 million of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030. It’s another premium-priced approach to limit the effects of climate change, while helping to jumpstart a market for others.

The successful sustainability leaders I admire are constant learners, strategic influencers, visionary thinkers and collaborative networkers.

As we’ve committed to four categories, the last is the Aspirers, a category that encompasses most companies doing yeoman’s work on sustainability. CSOs in these companies have programs, although they would really like to do more and they’re trying to reach for what they can, often with the help of the other three categories. No disrespect, but they are under-resourced and understaffed, their roles often not seen as truly critical to the business.

These four categories are not static. In Premier League football, there is a relegation system where the three teams with the lowest number of points at the end of the season drop down to the second-tier division before a new season begins. It’s possible that the companies we’ve labeled Enablers, Strongarms and Pioneers could lose their way, becoming Aspirers. It’s unlikely this would happen simply because a CSO retired or got replaced. (Sorry, Trane sustainability lead Scott Tew and Walmart CSO Kathleen McLaughlin, you do great work, but your companies will likely continue to be out in front on sustainability even after you’re gone.) Something more strategic would likely have occurred.

That fourth category, the Aspirers, is the one place where a CSO can flip the script and move their company into one of the other categories. It requires funding and resources, and perhaps a new CEO’s commitment. But they will not do this because of a specific type of personality or because they are externally focused or people-focused or whatever. It is because, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, CSOs contain multitudes.

The successful sustainability leaders I admire, and there are many at all four types of companies, are constant learners, strategic influencers, visionary thinkers and collaborative networkers. They put others before themselves and are generous with recognition. They are team players and cheerleaders. They work to truly understand the business, and they strive to translate sustainability commitments into actionable initiatives. They are persistent optimists working to change systems. They must be all these things because to be effective they need to work across the organization at every level and function and outside the company across a wide range of stakeholders.

That is, they are leaders. They search for where they can make an impact, whether it’s in their company’s operations, strategy, workforce or with outside stakeholders. Not because they are a certain "type," but because that’s how they can be most effective in their job.

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