Corporate CEOs now recognize that a chief sustainability officer provides a competitive advantage for a company’s growth and long-term success. In 2007 a little more than 5 percent of the Fortune 500 had a designated corporate social responsibility officer. In 2008 this had grown to 10 percent. These companies are already seeing the value this position brings to an operation.


A comparable shift occurred in HR. In the 1950s, only 5 percent of the Fortune 500 had designated HR personnel. Now, of course, nearly all have them. As American values shift so do the roles in a company. As companies are becoming more committed to environmental and social stewardship they see a real need for someone to take responsibility and lead their sustainability initiatives.

Each company needs to have a different approach to sustainability because they will need to match it with their own core values and strategic direction. Ultimately, the CSO will want to drive business growth and increase profitability, as do all the other executives, but their focus will be to integrate business objectives with social and environmental responsibility.

CSOs can address any number of sustainability issues:

• Managing environmental risk

• Resource conservation and management

• Waste reduction

• Product stewardship and life cycle footprints

• New “green” product lines or services

• Community involvement and volunteerism

•”Green” communications, reporting and marketing strategy

• Employee transportation plans and incentives

The role of CSO is challenging and complex. A person in this position needs to be able to see both the vision and long-term strategy of a company as well as be creative and innovative. It is not only about having the education and technical knowledge, but being able to lead and effect change. This role requires someone who isn’t afraid to take risks and who also has the ability to facilitate, create consensus and drive cultural change. It requires a person to juggle many projects and manage them efficiently. He or she is the sustainability champion who must raise environmental awareness among every group and individual within a company and integrate environmental thinking into every department.

 The CSO can effect change from the top down and the bottom up. (A great example of a bottom-up initiative is Harrah’s Code Green Team.) By driving change in both directions he or she will get much greater buy-in from employees, which in turn enables them to more effectively explain what they do and involve their customers.

Several years ago, I was calling on a purchasing manager who I was doing a good deal of business with, and I was presenting a new product. The product was a new online template ordering system for the products that she regularly ordered from us.  (This was before I explained to her the cost benefits of using an online ordering system - lower PO costs, the ability to electronically requisition product across many departments with the click of a mouse, free next-day delivery, etc.

Sounds like an easy sell?  Wrong.

I never could have expected what she told me next, and neither could my boss, who I brought along for this very reason. “Well the Internet is good for sending e-mails,” she said, “but it is going to be disappearing soon, so I don’t want to put my time into this.”

My boss and I just looked at each other, tried to explain this in a different way, but there was just no answering her objection because it wasn’t based on anything but fear of the unknown.

Now I can look back on that and laugh, and I use it as an opener when I speak.  Everyone usually starts to laugh, and there are some comments about how the Internet is everywhere now. But when I talk with companies about sustainability and the need to use it as a cost-saving tool I get the same types of response: “Oh, well, we have the towel program going on in the rooms.” “Green is for hippies and tree-huggers.” “I can’t spend any money on new projects because we are having financial difficulties.”

The last point is important, because as you look to bring a CSO into your organization that person should explain that by implementing energy conservation measures you will not only be doing what is right for the environment and for the social wellbeing of those in your geographical area, but you’ll also add dollars to the bottom line by creatively cutting costs and improving business efficiency.

We have only a few years before the effects of global warming are irreversible. The U.S. corporate world has been a huge part of the problem and now has an opportunity to be part of the solution. All companies, whether large or small, have to be conscious of how their business impacts our environment, the community and our world. CSOs can play an influential and vital role in moving companies in the right direction quickly.