Five Vital Skills of Successful Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs)

Beauty brand Estée Lauder has recently appointed its first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer, joining brands like SunLife and even British American Tobacco. Research from PwC in 2022 found that one in three large UK businesses now had a CSO in place.

Suddenly they’re everywhere – and that’s a good thing. Especially if we compare this to the business landscape of ten or even five years ago when CSOs were remarkably thin on the ground.

But appointing a CSO isn’t the same as putting a new CIO in charge of your IT or a new CMO to lead the marketing team. Not least because the people appointed to fulfil those latter roles will often have 15- or 20 years of specialist experience in the field. 

With sustainability having been much later to the party, the odds of a new CSO having even ten years of experience in sustainability are slim. Candidates are much more likely to have risen through the ranks in other roles, and for them, sustainability is probably going to be a personal interest rather than a historical career path. 

That makes it hard for brands to identify the skills they need from their CSO and to write an effective recruitment brief – unless they follow some expert guidelines inspired by sustainable pioneers such as Sir David Attenborough and Dame Ellen McArthur. 

CSO need to have passion

The fact that most CSO candidates are passionate about sustainability is, fortunately, a positive factor. The CSO will need to drive the board – and the entire business – in rethinking many of the ways they do business, even if they are a single voice facing scepticism. 

That requires a willingness to stand up and be counted. If the CSO isn’t passionate about making the world a better place and reducing the negative impact their business may have on our planet, no one at the company will feel the urge to do so. And, as it happens, this is one area where you don’t need experience.

Measurability to avoid greenwashing

A lot of brands have big claims on sustainability but often lack the data to back them up. The CSO will, for example, need to be able to qualify progress internally and externally to their customers/consumers and this can only be achieved with live and accurate data. There may also be some difficulty communicating to consumers as there may be a short-term price rise due to compliance with legislation like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

That means they will need to be comfortable with hard data and transparency, rather than big, unsubstantiated claims that might merely be seen as greenwashing.

Analytical and critical thinking

On a similar note, a CSO can no longer be an ivory tower thinker lost in a cloud of lofty big-picture strategies. The business – and its customers – will want to see quantifiable and granular data showing improvement and innovation – so a CSO must be able to analyse that data to show what’s working, what isn’t and how they will achieve their business commitments.

Awareness of compliance and legislation 

It’s an understatement to say that sustainability has more legislation and compliance than it did ten years ago. Today, new laws are being passed every day across multiple regions and jurisdictions. For any brand – and especially those present in multiple countries – that can be, shall we say, challenging.

An effective CSO needs both their own knowledge base of legislation and a clear and unbiased network of sources and advisors, to help them navigate this web of interconnected rules and regulations and work within these requirements to drive their business forward. 

Understand the value chain sustainability

To take one example, being the CSO of a multinational retailer means understanding a lot more than the environmental footprint of just the stores and offices of that one company. It has the brands it sells, the suppliers it uses, and an entire upstream network behind it. But to the consumer, it’s all just the face of the retailer. 

Every business faces this value chain and the CSO has to be aware of more than just their own processes. The coffee and fruit sold in the stores might be ethically sourced, but what about the packaging it comes in? Is it recyclable, sustainably sourced and/or contains post-consumer recycled content and if not, why not?

The last point is perhaps the most important – understanding that sustainability isn’t just the activities of the business that hired you but includes everything to which it’s connected. An effective CSO will know that their good name is tied up in more than just their current employer.

Words: Gillian Garside-Wight, director of sustainable packaging consultancy Aura

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