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License to thrive

Next-generation sustainability leaders
January 2017

As the private sector embraces the urgency of sustainability, more and more companies are appointing a chief sustainability officer (CSO) to develop a sustainability strategy and oversee sustainability initiatives.

The sustainability function is still young and to be effective CSOs need to forge close relationships both inside and outside their organisations. As a company matures in its sustainability journey, the concept moves beyond the core sustainability team to become embedded throughout an organisation, as both staff and line managers come on board and business leaders make it part of overall strategy.

Our study combines the results of an online survey of CSOs with in-depth interviews with executives in charge of sustainability in large-scale businesses across a range of sectors.

Executive Summary

  • Both the corporate sustainability function and the role of chief sustainability officers are changing. In a generation, many companies have gone from checking off a list of regulations to embracing sustainability as part of business strategy.
  • Today, sustainability surfaces in various forms of innovation, from new business models that empower under-served groups, to developing products that directly address difficult challenges such as climate change or ageing.
  • To fruitfully pursue those objectives, CSOs must be able to build rapport at all levels of an organisation: 61% of survey respondents agreed that the ability to collaborate effectively across functions was an essential attribute for sustainability teams.
  • Effective CSOs are also resourceful; conceiving and executing sustainability strategies without the benefit of existing processes.
  • Tone from the top makes a big difference. CSOs who believe their CEO is personally vested in sustainability are more likely to consider their own functions to be high impact.
  • As companies mature in their approach to sustainability, that understanding becomes embedded across each business, heightening its importance for managers and leaders beyond the core sustainability team.