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What Does a Chief Sustainability Officer Do?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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A chief sustainability officer (CSO) is responsible for a corporation's approach to environmental responsibility and for lessening its negative impact on the world's eco-systems. It is a position that has become popular as the public has increased its focus on global warming and conservation issues. The CSO finds innovative ways for the corporation to meet its obligations as a responsible corporate citizen that is as concerned about the future as it is about today's profits.

Sustainability, at its core, applies to the preservation of our natural world and the desire not to further degrade the environment to the detriment of future generations. In the 21st century, however, the concept of sustainability has taken on a life of its own, and that there seems to be no single definition that adequately defines all applications. As the international community continues to embrace economic globalism, it continues to expand the notion of sustainability to include areas that fall outside of environmentalism, such as labor practices, social welfare and economic development.

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International law has furthered this trend of treating sustainability as philosophy and a thread that runs through the entirety of corporate behavior, rather than as a narrow environmental approach. Corporations are now required both in the European Union and in the United States to determine the impact on the world of major actions they wish to take in advance and to present a sustainability plan. This commitment to sustainability has become such a key determinate to successful domestic and international business that the role of the chief sustainability officer was developed to manage the process.

A chief sustainability officer analyzes the company's business processes to identify areas where a change in approach can increase the company's commitment to sustainability. He vets the opportunity and presents it to the chief executive officer and the board of directors. If management decides to implement the opportunity, the CSO manages the transition.

This position is strategic in nature. Deciding to change a business process to a more sustainable approach is a long term investment that can bankrupt a company if the change is not properly evaluated and planned. For example, a CSO might suggest changing a coffee company's farming practices to a sustainable approach that is endorsed by the leading environmental groups. It is the CSO's job to determine the impact of this change on the corporation's bottom line over time and to make a knowledgeable recommendation about whether to go forward.

Another example of a change in process that a chief sustainability officer might spearhead is in regard to product packaging. Many companies have moved to smaller containers that use biodegradable and recycled materials. A CSO assumes the responsibility of evaluating and managing such a transition. In addition, the CSO is involved in all parts of the transition, including matters such as the public relations plan to educate the customer about the benefits of the change.

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