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How has the CSO role expanded to fit the demands of 2017?

It’s clear that the sustainability profession is evolving with many sustainability professionals quietly but gradually expanding their scope and responsibility — programmatically and strategically.

Furthermore, companies surveyed by GreenBiz for its annual State of the Business report are reporting a 35 percent increase in sustainability headcount. Anecdotally, the number of corporate sustainability jobs are on the rise — just do a simple search on LinkedIn for "sustainability jobs."

But what does this expansion look like?

I put this question to a group of 60 sustainability professionals and received a matrix of responses that don’t just underline the growing criticality of the sustainability function for companies continued progress but also how organizations actively are exploring how to best position themselves as leaders in this area.

Sustainability expands to health and safety...

Paulette Frank, VP of EHS & Sustainability for Johnson & Johnson, has responsibility for both traditional EHS and driving the broader environmental sustainability efforts of the company. She said, "EHS is often the first sustainability frontier for companies and we are finding, similar to other companies, that by bringing EHS and sustainability together we are leveraging more synergies across our internal and external efforts and creating more value for our stakeholders."

In fact, most of those who indicated a recent expansion of their roles reported adding the EHS functionality to their portfolio including Bruce Klafter at Flex, who offered some context: "Sustainability is often the add-on to an original EHS job scope [if you look at this traditionally]. While other CSOs have come [to sustainability] from different angles and have had Public Affairs, Government Relations and External Communications as parts of their jobs, I have also seen Security and Risk Management in some CSOs portfolio."

This rings true for Cindy Ortega as well.

Ortega, who lead’s MGM’s much lauded sustainability efforts — and is one of few women CSOs in corporate America —  reports having taken on more responsibility over the past year as well, "mostly from deepening our focus on subject matters within the sustainability umbrella."

For example, MGM’s investment in energy management programs for facilities has doubled because of the advances in technology which have resulted in significant opportunity for large building operators to reduce power consumption. Her team is also responsible for the company’s investment in technology accelerators to help advance emerging technologies in sustainability issue areas.

… and increasingly, stakeholder engagement

Ortega also reported increasing prominence lately in supply chain issues such as increasing our procurement of locally grown food. This was echoed by several others including Paula Luff, former sustainability chief at Hess, who said, "The field has evolved considerably from a focus on how companies spend their money (philanthropy) to how they manage their social and environmental impacts. At Hess, I was responsible for compliance with 1502 and 1504 of Dodd-Frank as well as the U.K. Modern Slavery Act." Not traditional sustainability functions for most companies.

In fact, Luff felt that this trend toward greater engagement in compliance matters will continue to rise as hard and soft law in the energy sector increases and requirements differ from country to country, compliance and the work of CSOs will become more complicated.

The field has evolved from a focus on how companies spend their money (philanthropy) to how they manage their social and environmental impacts.

Owen Corning’s sustainability lead Dhruv Raina agreed with Luff. In the past year, he reported having some "interesting conversations" with multiple sustainability leaders are looking to extract value from sustainability now that their in-house programs are mature.

"Leaders are increasingly thinking about how to engage (proactively) with external stakeholders to hear the voice of the stakeholder and proactively address any issues that might hurt their brand," Raina said. This, of course, long has been managed by PR folks but as issues related to environment, often social in nature and global in scale become the norm, professionals with a deep understanding of sustainability concepts along with the ability to decipher multicultural signals has become important, he emphasized.

Chief sustainability — and monetizing — officer?

For others, their role has expanded toward the other end of engagement, such as marketing and communication responsibilities. Take Bea Perez, chief sustainability officer and senior vice president of global assets, partnerships, licensing, retail and innovation at Coca-Cola, who has taken on more marketing lately at the global beverages giant. A positive expansion, she said this was a move to connect with consumers in a new way, including developing a more integrated "sustainability mindset" versus a standalone function.

"As many companies build out their sustainability teams, some for the first time, sustainability is not being limited to the environment anymore — it's about how companies can think with a sustainability mindset and make a difference for their bottom line," she said.

Owen Corning’s Raina underlined this as well by recalling a conversation with Tim Brooks, vice president corporate responsibility at Lego, who had said, "We want somebody who gets what's material to our business and where and who we should play with today to reduce any harm to our brand tomorrow."

This is language that sustainability professionals understand only too well, having emerged as a workforce from decades of connecting the dots between material impacts, risk management and business performance.

We want somebody who gets what's material to our business and where and who we should play with today to reduce any harm to our brand tomorrow.

Bruno Sarda, NRG’s new sustainability chief, also reported a similar expansion "primarily to better align with sales/marketing to help both translate and measure the value of internal sustainability initiatives in terms of commercial success."

He called it the "increasing need for CSMO (chief sustainability monetizing officers]," indicative, he said, positively of a growing demand for better accountability externally and internally at companies.

Expanding sustainability roles to become better business leaders?

Mitch Jackson, vice president for environmental affairs and sustainability at FedEx, offered yet another nuanced view suggesting that this expansion of sustainability roles or as he called it, "hiring from within," is indicative of the need for more "sustainability leaders to know the business to truly be effective. Hiring from outside an individual company is not a problem… but hiring someone from outside who hasn’t worked in the business sector severely risks having the sustainability agenda not tied to the business purpose or agenda in any meaningful or impactful degree."

Others that reported expanding titles indicated forays into charitable giving and philanthropy, change leadership, innovation and in a few cases, diversity and inclusion.

So, what’s ahead as sustainability chiefs continue to making inroads into better connecting the many dots of sustainability?

Andy Savitz, author of "The Triple Bottom Line," principal consultant at Sustainable Business Strategies and a former Partner at PwC, suggested the next additive could be in the area of ethics. "I don't know anyone who has been given the ethics portfolio yet but I think that may be coming next — and soon."

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