Meaningful and credible sustainability reporting as a key requirement for any responsible business is increasingly becoming accepted by companies globally. However, reporting cannot take place in isolation. Sustainability needs to be embedded in the corporate DNA through a transformative process, which takes time and requires strong leadership at the C-suite level. This has led to the emergence of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). The first-known CSO appointment was Linda Fisher at Dupont in 2004. By 2011, there were 29 CSOs in publicly traded companies in the USA and, in 2020, Fortune 500 companies hired more CSOs than in the previous three years combined Tweet This!.
Additionally, in 2020, the Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative launched the Sustainable 30 Group, comprised of CSOs from some of the world’s most influential companies. Its aim is to ‘collaborate on initiatives and actions to help protect and drive sustainable stakeholder value’.
Dealing with ESG risks
The role of the CSO covers a widening set of responsibilities, amid the many sustainability challenges that confront organisations. Deloit
Despite these realities, the need for a CSO is yet to be embraced evenly by major corporations. Some are still determining why and how to integrate sustainability into their business functions and processes.
Against this backdrop, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), provider of the world’s most widely used and trusted sustainability reporting standards, held a webinar in July under the theme ‘do companies need a Chief Sustainability Officer?’ As expected, the findings of the session were an unequivocal ‘yes’.
Through discussions with six distinguished CSOs and sustainability champions in Southeast Asia, the webinar illuminated why a CSO is becoming indispensable, what their core competencies, skills and leadership attributes are, and how the CSO will be key for the implementation of successful business strategies in the future.
Key competencies for CSO leadership
Herry Cho, Managing Director and Head of Sustainability and Sustainable Finance with the Singapore Exchange (SGX), debunked the myth that embracing sustainability comes at the expense of profitability. According to Cho, the CSO’s commercial mindset enables them to “add value to every function in the organization”.
According to Yvonne Zhang, Deloitte Southeast Asia Sustainability Leader, the CSO challenges the traditional understanding of leadership. As she put it, the CSO’s leadership qualities can be set out as ‘C’ for ‘credibility’, ‘S’ for ‘sense-
Esther An – CSO for City Developments Limited (CDL) in Singapore – reflected on key learnings from her CSR and sustainability journey over the past 20 years and said that a CSO should be someone who cares about the environment and the community at large. Someone committed to the cause of doing good and doing well, someone creative and communicative in mapping out a sustainability centric strategy that has impact.
Darian McBain, Global Director, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability of Thai Union, said that passion drives the CSO to be both a fighter and a collaborator. As she put it, the CSO is not afraid to push something because it is the right thing to do, collaborating with people across and outside the organisation to make change happen. Similarly, Dr Simon Lord, an independent sustainability advisor, scientist and former CSO of Sime Darby Plantation, argued that purpose and performance are of equal import to the CSO.
As regards the costs of embedding sustainability in an organisation, Ignacio Carmelo Sison, Chief Corporate Officer of Del Monte Pacific, said: “In the long run the cost of investing in sustainability is less than the cost of not investing in it. Disruption, in its negative sense, would be a greater cost – be it environmental, social or operational. Sustainability is essentially the opposite of disruption. Companies, therefore, need to invest in the present to sustain the future.”
Companies cannot survive in an increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain world without integrating sustainability into the core of their operations. However, accessing the right people with the right sustainability skillset may not be easy. As covered in analysis by GreenBiz this month, PwC will create 100,000 ESG jobs by 2026, reflective of the current situation whereby demand for sustainability professionals is far outstripping supply.
The mandate of the CSO is likely to continue to evolve, while a comprehensive understanding of sustainability performance is expected to be a growing requirement for many other senior roles. Indeed, the ideal situation will see a CSO as unnecessary, with sustainability effectively integrated across a company’s operations, practices, products and services. Until that day comes, the CSO is here to stay.
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