Why corporate America is making room in the C-suite for CSOs

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst May 26, 2021
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According to a new report, 31 publicly traded companies in the U.S. hired their first chief sustainability officer in 2020. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why corporate America is making room in the C-suite for CSOs

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst May 26, 2021
Heard on:
According to a new report, 31 publicly traded companies in the U.S. hired their first chief sustainability officer in 2020. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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In corporate America, more companies are making room in their C-suite for a chief sustainability officer, the person traditionally responsible for responding to environmental issues. 

The Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruiting firm, has been tracking the rise of CSOs for over a decade and released a report last week showing that 31 publicly traded U.S. companies hired their first CSO in 2020 — more than in the previous three years combined. The field has grown by 228%, from just 29 CSOs in 2011 to 95 in 2021, according to the report.

According to the report, the role of chief sustainability officers is also shifting beyond sustainability to incorporate social justice and other elements of environmental, social and governance, or ESG, criteria.

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal and Ellen Weinreb, the Weinreb Group’s founder and CEO, about the evolving sustainability executive profession.

Kai Ryssdal: So, chief sustainability officers ain’t what they used to be, right? The job has evolved since you’ve been doing this.

Ellen Weinreb: That’s right. We’ve been recruiting in this field of sustainability for over a decade. And we did research 10 years ago, and perhaps the biggest change is the role that investors have played in encouraging corporations to be more involved in sustainability.

Ryssdal: You say investors, and that leads me to think that maybe companies are doing this because they think they ought to instead of because they they want to.

Weinreb: The companies are doing the right thing, and at the same time, money talks. So if you’re a CEO and the investors are saying, “What is your performance on environmental, social and governance?” — ESG — the CEO listens, the board listens, and so that is a huge impetus for change.

Ryssdal: I imagine the role of the chief sustainability officer depends on what the company does, right? It can’t be that the chief sustainability officer at, like, Wells Fargo does the same thing day in and day out that the CSO at, I don’t know, like Walmart does?

Weinreb: Well, at the end of the day, a chief sustainability officer is minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive impacts on society and the planet. It’s very industry dependent. Yet at the same time, it’s all towards a social and environmental good.

Ryssdal: Yeah, just on the recruiting part of your job, is it tricky to find people to fill these jobs? I mean, you know, climate change isn’t new, but this field as an area of expertise kind of is.

Weinreb: Yeah, the field of sustainability is relatively new compared to traditional functions. Ten years ago, the sustainability officers didn’t have a lot of previous experience in sustainability, and now they do. So yeah, the searches are hard and challenging. You know, between racial justice and the pandemic and just more volatility in the world, it’s a challenging job.

Ryssdal: How do you — what are the metrics? I mean, when you go out and look for some, you know, Fortune 500 chief sustainability officer, what are you looking for?

Weinreb: Well, we’re looking for previous experience, and it’s largely about influencing change and having the ability to translate what’s going on externally to how that benefits and supports the company.

Ryssdal: So let me ask you the bigger-picture question, and that’s, you know, no matter what happens with a chief sustainability officer, am I right in saying that ESG, all three of those elements are now becoming almost mandatory in corporate America?

Weinreb: Definitely. You’ve got the role of sustainability officer and the head role of sustainability is no longer “might have,” it’s now a “must have.”

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