Chief Sustainability Officers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?

by Kathleen Miller & George Serafeim
 
 

Executive Summary — A number of studies document how organizations go through numerous stages as they increase their commitment to sustainability over time. However, we still know little about the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) in this process. Using survey and interview data, the authors of this paper analyze how CSOs' authority and responsibilities differ across organizations that are in different stages of sustainability commitment. The study documents the increased authority that CSOs have in companies that are in more advanced stages of sustainability. But while CSOs assume more responsibilities initially as the organization's commitment to sustainability increases, CSOs decentralize decision rights and allocate responsibilities to the different functions and business units. Furthermore, the authors document that a firm's sustainability strategy becomes significantly more idiosyncratic in the later stages of sustainability, a factor that influences significantly where in the organization responsibility for sustainability issues is located. The study also reflects on the best avenues for future research about CSOs and transformation at the institutional, organizational, and individual levels. This article is a chapter of the forthcoming book Leading Sustainable Change (Oxford University Press). Key concepts include:

  • As a CSO gains more authority, she becomes less central in in the organization by allocating decision rights and responsibilities to the functions and business units.
  • While most companies have fairly generic sustainability strategies in the initial stages, it is in the latter Innovation stage that different organizations more closely customize their sustainability strategy to the needs of the organization.
  • The sustainability strategy is driven by the demands of the markets where an organization has a presence or plans to expand in the future.

Author Abstract

While a number of studies document that organizations go through numerous stages as they increase their commitment to sustainability over time, we know little about the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) in this process. Using survey and interview data we analyze how a CSO's authority and responsibilities differ across organizations that are in different stages of sustainability commitment. We document increasing organizational authority of the CSO as organizations increase their commitment to sustainability moving from the Compliance to the Efficiency and then to the Innovation stage. However, we also document a decentralization of decision rights from the CSO to different functions, largely driven by sustainability strategies becoming more idiosyncratic at the Innovation stage. The study concludes with a discussion of practices that CSOs argue to accelerate the commitment of organizations to sustainability.

Paper Information