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Defining the role of the modern CSO

As organisations seek to place sustainability at the heart of their strategic decision-making, what role should the chief sustainability officer play in driving performance, culture and attitudes?

The role of the CSO stands out now more than ever. (Photo by Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock)

Last year, a report jointly published by Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance (IIF) dubbed the CSO (chief sustainability officer) “the sense maker in chief”, predicting that the role would grow significantly in prominence over the next two years. 

However, while the authors of ‘The future of the Chief Sustainability Officer‘ acknowledged that both the mandate and required skillset of the CSO were becoming “clearer than ever”, only 15% of organisations surveyed had such an executive in place. 

Indeed, clarity remains something of an issue. There are often inconsistencies around what the specific responsibilities of the CSO should be. While a growing number of progressive C-suites recognise the need to empower their sustainability leader, ‘greenwashing’ appointments are still an issue – with business leaders keen to be seen to do the right thing, while remaining less enthused about the idea of placing that person at the heart of their business.

What does a modern CSO do?

According to Faye Bennett-Hart, chief sustainability officer at Rio ESG – an intelligent software platform that democratises expert sustainability knowledge to help organisations and investors implement sustainability and ESG strategies through streamlined data management, effective governance and skills development – the role of CSO should encompass all parts of one’s business. 

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In Bennett-Hart’s case, this means working with clients in servicing their needs, understanding current ESG performance, developing improvement roadmaps, and recommending market-leading practices and efforts towards achieving globally recognised sustainability standards. Internally, there is also a significant responsibility for a sustainability platform such as Rio to ensure it practises what it preaches and remains at the forefront of ESG innovation and performance. 

“A big part of my job is to communicate our sustainability message to all parts of the business – even those who might not necessarily come face to face with it on a daily basis,” Bennett-Hart says, “‘Sustainability for All’ is a central tenet of our organisation, and bringing everyone on board makes it easier to meet ESG goals, including, on the environmental side, our net-zero target, which we’ve set in line with the Paris Agreement.

“It’s also my responsibility to make a case for sustainability, and particularly relevant areas of ESG, for clients. We do this through ‘materiality assessments’. These reports are about understanding the business and what is most important to focus their attention on; the requirements that keep businesses on the right track for both internal and external stakeholders, including regulators, in their specific industries.” 

This requires a large degree of nuance, tailoring reports and recommendations to a client’s specific circumstances in order to deliver actionable insights – a process Rio seeks to “democratise”, providing enterprises of all sizes with access to market-leading consultancy services. Bennett-Hart contrasts a clothing manufacturer that might use lots of water during production, with an office-based business where water is less significant, but paper usage and data security are more material. “Each recommendation we deliver has to make economic sense as well as from an environmental, social and governance perspective. That’s why, at Rio, we talk about ESEG (environmental, social, economic and governance),” she says.

Actioning those insights has been made more straightforward, the CSO acknowledges, through mandatory adoption of TCFD recommendations, SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) ESG regulation in the US, and by looking forward to the publication of the up-and-coming ISSB (International Sustainability Standards Board) standard, which was opened to public consultation this summer. There is now a sense of urgency on the part of businesses across all industries to accelerate reporting and, therefore, progress. 

There remains, however, a discrepancy between acknowledging the need to improve reporting standards and a broader recognition of the opportunity to deliver meaningful change that can boost both economic and sustainability performance. This is where an empowered CSO can make a significant difference, driving a culture that sees the strategic benefits of embedding ESG at the heart of one’s business.

“Climate-related risk is not just about satisfying the requirements of legislation in a tick-box exercise, but can have really important and positive impact in terms of ensuring a business’s long-term success,” Bennett-Hart says. “The main issue is companies not being aware of the risks and opportunities, and not implementing the processes and governance required to manage them. Companies that miss this, will miss out and fail in this rapidly changing world. Changing mindsets in this regard is perhaps one of the biggest parts of the modern CSO’s job.

“In fact, we rarely talk about ‘sustainability’ anymore, at least not in the abstract. It’s now about trying to make organisations see that this is just the ‘new way of doing business’. And unfortunately, until it becomes regular standard practice to normalise this stuff in the marketplace, the need for a CSO is not going away any time soon. That’s what we’re here for.”

The importance of data

Data lies at the heart of successfully making that case. Scope 3 emissions, Bennett-Hart says, is an area where Rio has had to focus a great deal of client education, given the complexities around measuring and reporting on the results of activities from external parties. 

“In instances where clients have historic data,” Bennett-Hart says, “Rio does the leg work of uploading it to our platform and integrating it in such a way that we can break down metrics they already have. Then, depending on future usage, we map out a strategy for the client to maintain and update that data accordingly. There’s also the ability to automate part of the process in terms of file upload and taking daily readings, so that some of the more laborious processes aren’t kept there in a time-wasting capacity.”

There is also growing nuance and capability in aspects of ESG beyond carbon disclosures. Diversity, for example, is an area that CSOs must increasingly take into account, both with regard to how it is encouraged and reported.

The good news, according to Bennett-Hart, is that because most organisations run off HR systems that capture complex data in a way that makes it easy to process, converting that data into useful ESG knowledge is simply a matter of knowing how and where to look for it. However, it’s not just about collecting the data, it’s what you then do with it that counts. 

What the future holds

Ideally, Hart says, the CSO role should encompass the skill set of someone who can make sense of wider external conversations around the environment and translate those learnings into actionable insights within their respective organisations. They should also be given the capacity to collaborate on building an effective business strategy for their organisation to carry forward, while engaging, educating and connecting with all parts of a business, so that workers on every level understand the rationale for taking a sustainable approach.

The role of CSO should, in other words, be imbued with real responsibility and gravitas and not simply marked down to fulfil a box-ticking or optics exercise for regulators. “This is especially true post-Covid,” Bennett-Hart says. “Over the last two years, most of us settled into more hybrid working patterns where travel and resultant carbon emissions weren’t as much of an issue. Suddenly a lot of us are back in the office, and expected to keep our carbon footprints down without an effective sustainable strategy in place.

“We must help CSOs realise that strategy, giving businesses the tools in terms of technology, consultancy where appropriate, and an ongoing relationship with our clients where they can come to us with any questions they might have. We realise that sustainability is a long-term project, and we will continue to guide our clients through the roadmap. The Rio platform continues to guide and support along the rest of the journey, so we can all get there in good time. 

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