What is a Sustainability Officer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sustainability officer is a company employee who acts as a compliance officer to set and uphold environmental standards. The company rank of such officials varies, with many hovering around the rank of vice-president, and they may be referred to as chief sustainability officers (CSOs). Sustainability officers handle environmental standards in the office, making sure that the company carries out its day to day business in an environmentally-friendly way, and they are also involved in making company products more sustainable.

A chief sustainability officer is responsible for lessening a company's negative environmental impact.
A chief sustainability officer is responsible for lessening a company's negative environmental impact.

Sustainability officers were developed in the business world in response to growing consumer concerns about the environment. Like many innovations in business, once several companies picked up the idea, numerous others quickly followed suit, because they did not want to be left behind. Although some critics have suggested that appointing sustainability officers amounts to greenwashing, in which a company tries to make its environmental image more appealing by providing the illusion of responsibility, others have argued that the peer pressure of sustainability programs has had a positive environmental benefit by encouraging companies to behave sustainably.

Sustainability officers may change shipping practices to make products more sustainable.
Sustainability officers may change shipping practices to make products more sustainable.

In the office, a sustainability officer may do things like encouraging employees to go paperless, using recycled paper, setting up recycling programs, and instituting low flush toilets for bathrooms. Sustainability officers are also involved in the renovation of existing offices and the designs of new ones, pushing sustainable building options which will increase energy efficiency. In addition to making the company look good by showing that the company has a commitment to environmental responsibility, a sustainability officer also helps a company save money by reducing energy costs and making the office run more efficiently.

Sustainability officers also work with companies to make their products more sustainable. Their work might include simple steps, like ensuring that orders are packaged and sent together rather than separately to cut down on shipping, or more complex ones, like reworking the designs of existing products to include sustainable materials. A sustainability officer may also be involved in company environmental programs, such as pledges to plant trees on behalf of customers, or sponsorship of environmental organizations.

Viewed cynically, a sustainability officer enhances his or her company's reputation in a market where being environmentally friendly is a hot commodity. Having a sustainability officer also allows a company to compete with similar companies, making such officials a necessity even if a company didn't care about the environment. However, these members of the corporate world also provide a valuable service, promoting environmental initiatives, showing companies how they can do business in a way which minimally impacts the environment, and helping to preserve the environment for future generations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

mchlrchmnd

A sustainability officer is someone who might be seen as a resource manager. First it helps to understand that sustainability refers to better management of our resources on a global scale. In a business, the sustainability officer has the job of providing environmental insight within the normal activities of the company.

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