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Proof Points

What do businesses think of their CSOs?

Companies share the challenges, strengths and perceptions of chief sustainability officers with GlobeScan and BSR in a recent survey.

In our first 2015 edition of Proof Points, we take a look at the impact that a chief sustainability officer can have on corporate sustainability. Successful men and women in business know that gaining internal buy-in for a program is crucial in any organization, but what if there is no one to champion sustainability as a critical component of business strategy?

The CSO is the ambassador with the vision, whose presence in an organization helps foster buy-in across the company, and is the one who decides what needs to change when it comes to how the company is interacting with the communities and the broader societal context in which it operates.

According to the 2014 GlobeScan/BSR State of Sustainable Business study, the CSO role is evolving into one that cannot be separated from the core business. When asked what qualities are most important for a CSO to be successful, sustainability professionals identify good business sense and credibility as the most important by far (see chart below).

Infographic showing most important qualities for a CSO
These findings suggest that sustainability expertise is not enough to gain credibility in an organization; rather, there is a growing sense among sustainability professionals that in order to be successful, a CSO must have the business acumen to marry the enterprise to sustainability. As sustainability takes a more prominent role in corporate strategy and reputation, professionals recognize that business sense and credibility are vital skills for a CSO in advocating for greater integration of sustainability.

The call for business acumen and credibility in this role echoes the need for companies to integrate sustainability into core business functions, from high-level strategic applications to everyday operational activities. According to the same BSR survey, sustainability professionals also qualify the integration of sustainability into core business as the most significant challenge for leadership today (see chart below). More than any other issue, this has remained the most important challenge for business to address over the past three years.

Infographic showing greatest challenges for a CSO
Today, companies with a CSO are making a statement: Sustainability has a place at the table where the most critical and innovative business decisions are made. As an advocate for sustainability, a CSO who is present in an organization helps foster buy-in across the company, especially as that presence boosts perceptions of positive performance among internal stakeholders. European companies are more likely to have a CSO (68 percent) when compared to their counterparts in North America (30 percent) and other markets (54 percent).

When asked about the potential impact that a CSO can have on sustainability strategy (see chart below), sustainability professionals with a CSO at their company were twice as likely as those without one to qualify a “very significant impact.” Among respondents whose companies lack a CSO, a significant proportion was unable to answer. Regardless of the perceived impact of a CSO, the presence of this sustainability executive appears to boost awareness of sustainability among employees.

Infographic showing perception of CSO's impact
Looking ahead in 2015, the CSO's role will continue to evolve as businesses move toward greater integration of sustainability into their operations, and as unprecedented challenges arise in managing resources and mitigating impacts.

Companies need to be nimble and flexible in their sustainability strategies to reflect continually changing social expectations — transitions that can be facilitated by a well-informed CSO with the ability to influence the CEO to drive progress and innovation across the business.

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