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Economy

Chief Sustainability Officers: A Rising C-Level

Benjamin Child

Sustainability has been increasingly on the mind of consumers since the mid-2000s. Google data indicates that since 2004, the average search interest in the term has increased by over twofold. As Google users, who are themselves consumers, become more fluent in what makes a lifestyle, product, or company sustainable, corporations have reacted in turn. Namely, by appointing newly formed Chief Sustainability Officers, or CSOs. 

Sitting atop the corporate ladder alongside other C-Level executives like the CEO, COO and CFO — all of which are long standing institutional roles transcending any particular industry — the CSO role is newer to the scene, but impactful across a variety of corporations all the same. 

Much like their counterparts, Chief Operating Officers who handle operations, and Chief Financial Officers who oversee finance, the Chief Sustainability Officer’s role is broadly in charge of managing, planning and strategizing a company’s environmental programs. Of note, however, is that “environment” has come to encompass far more than forestry and ocean conservation. 

In 2005, the term ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) was introduced, in a United Nations Global Impact Report titled Who Cares Wins. These responsibilities outlined in the publication over 16 years ago more closely align with the mission and goals of a CSO today. 

Photo courtesy of Thomas Richter

In a corporate context of ESG, “environment” of course includes the natural world and climate change initiatives, but it also includes the human impact of the company (the way the organization treats employees or people living around their offices/production facilities). To that end, “environment” and “social” work in tandem to refer to how the said company approaches the human environment on the whole, mainly through equitable programs promoting justice, and mechanisms the organization is employing to better humanity. Finally, the role focuses on connecting the work on climate change, social justice, clean energy investment, and so on with successful business outcomes for the organization and shareholders. 

In 2011, there were 29 CSOs of major, multinational corporations; today, in 2021, there are 95. This 228% increase reflects companies’ continuing realization of the importance of sustainability in the world today, both for the future and for consumers in the present. The influx of the C-Level newcomer over the past decade has brought with it a wave of diversity, which has been historically lacking in the upper echelons of the corporate globe. In 2011, 28% of CSOs identified as women and in 2021, that number has increased to 54%. For context, only 8% of CEOs in this category of businesses (Fortune 500s) identify as women. 

Within the last year, over 40 new Chief Sustainability Officers have been appointed. Below are a handful, whose names you can click on to read more about their journey to where they are today:

Katherine Neebe, CSO of Duke Energy: Duke Energy is a country-wide utility provider for electricity and natural gas based out of North Carolina. 

Paulette Frank, CSO of Johnson & Johnson: J&J is one of America’s most well-known brands. Founded in the late 1880s, they are a leading healthcare brand and pharmaceutical company with a plethora of subsidiaries. 

Brian Tippens, CSO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise: HPE is a mega-IT company based out of Houston, TX focusing on using information technology to solve complex business problems. 

Anne Alonzo, CSO of Corteva Agriscience: Corteva is a major agricultural chemical and seed manufacturer in America, once owned by Dow Agrosciences. 

Claudia Toussaint, CSO of Xylem Inc. – Xylem Inc. is a water technology company and utility focusing on merging water lifecycle technology with the daily needs of commercial, industrial, and residential clients. 

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