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The rise of CSOs — What they do and why it matters


The role of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is changing dramatically across industries and organisations. While their roots traditionally lie in corporate social responsibility, today’s CSOs are at the forefront of integrating Environmental Social Governance (ESG) issues into corporate strategy and fostering sustainable practice. 

In this article, we explore the evolving role of the CSO, the increasing demand for their expertise and considerations for the CSO of the future. 

Humble beginnings 

“Invisible giants” like First Nations people, grassroots organisations, scientists, activists and communities has paved the way for CSOs to ensure climate and nature is prioritised in the corporate landscape. From these beginnings, it’s important to highlight that today, ESG and sustainability are not the same within many organisations. In some cases, the sustainability team takes the lead on ESG, but must coordinate efforts with other functions such as People and Culture, Finance and Legal for example. 

The high demand for CSOs 

Right now, the number of companies appointing a CSO is rapidly rising. In 2021, more CSOs were hired globally than in the previous five years combined. Some reasons for this incline include: 

  • Growing ESG responsibilities: Organisations are facing mounting pressure from employees and external stakeholders to fulfill their ESG responsibilities.                                                        
  • External representation: CSOs are now the face of the company on sustainability matters, engaging with external stakeholders to build trust and demonstrate commitment. 
  • Aligning business and sustainability: Organisations are seeking to align their sustainability strategies with broader business objectives while advancing their sustainability goals. 
  • Holistic approach: CSOs are tasked with ESG reporting and risk management responsibilities. This requires collaboration across various company departments including People and Culture, Legal, Finance, Branding and more. 

The Evolving Role of the CSO 

The word “sustainability” has never been more popular in the corporate world than it is today. According to a KPMG 2020 Survey of Sustainability Report, 80% of top companies now report on sustainability. The term, however, is still open to misinterpretation and business greenwashing.  

Despite good intentions, there is still a lack of clarity about a CSO’s tasks and accountabilities. Until recently, the CSO role was virtually unheard of. This partly explains the inconsistent job descriptions, the different mandates, as well as the variety of reporting lines (for example, only a minority of CSOs report directly to the CEO). 

Currently, there is an absence of a standardised, defined portfolio and core skill specifications for the CSO position. Their role also incorporates diverted responsibilities like disclosures to finance, dealing with modern slavery through to human resources, branding and marketing, legal affairs, research and development. As the sustainability agenda broadens, the role becomes increasingly diverse. 

Defining sustainability and CSO 

In essence, sustainability means taking only what you need and leaving systems capable of continued existence. The CSO’s primary role is to identify and direct attention to material ESG issues that have a substantial impact on an organisation’s financial performance and risk profile. They should actively participate in strategy development, stakeholder engagement and investor relations, with strong support from senior management and the board. This weighs heavily on future business strategy, broader corporate governance, and long-term value creation.  

Envisioning the CSO of the future 

To ensure the success and intended impact of CSOs in driving ESG initiatives, organisations should consider three key changes: 

  1. Formal C-suite designation: CSOs should hold a formal C-Suite position, reporting directly to the CFO or CEO.
  2. Coordination with governance risk and compliance: CSOs should work closely with governance, risk, ethics and compliance functions.
  3. Board engagement: Corporate boards must understand the relationship between sustainability and value creation, incorporating it into strategy discussions and capital spending plans.

These changes require close collaboration with other members of the senior management team and active engagement with investors. In an ideal world, the authors of this Harvard Business Review article say, a stand-alone CSO role would become “obsolete once companies fully integrate ESG considerations into their corporate strategy and operations”. Until that day arrives, however, it is crucial to adapt and evolve the CSO role, in tandem with changing sustainability and ESG landscapes  

Final thought 

ESG Manager Lisa Tracy brings 15 years of recruiting ESG and sustainability professionals to the ESG Division. Lisa and her dedicated team will help to identify your specific resourcing needs and find top talent for your team. She can also provide strategic career advice to help you advance in the rapidly growing ESG field. Get in touch with Lisa today:  

Call 0499 009 301 


To learn more, you might also enjoy these articles, ‘What your company needs before hiring an ESG professional’ and ‘ESG jobs and career pathways — How to build a career in sustainability’. 

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