Reimagining the Role of the Chief Sustainability Officer

27 Nov 2018
Mr Anirban Ghosh

Sustainability is a relatively new subject and the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer is newer still. The increase in regulations in the climate change space, need for non-financial business disclosures for investor organizations and the intensification of the international dialogue has made many organizations reposition the head of sustainability practice as a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO).

The primary role of the CSO varies across organizations. Many safety officers have had their portfolio enhanced with environment and health and the combination has compliance high on the agenda. At some other organizations the energy officer has seen role enhancement and the primary focus is on operational efficiency apart from compliance. A third path has seen the evolution of the role of the CSR head and these organizations have greater focus on the social impact of the business apart from greater action on the EHS front post the creation of the position of CSO.

There are two other facets to the role that the CSO can play that are beyond compliance and beyond the intensification on one aspect of a broader portfolio. The first is the opportunity to shape the answer to the question – how can sustainability be leveraged to build a stronger, more resilient business? This gives the CSO a chance to make a business become greener in operations as well pursue relevant new businesses in the climate action space.

The second is to be an evangelist both within and outside the organization, rallying troops and exhorting action to enable progress on climate action. In this role the CSO makes an impact on enhancing the reputation and brand equity of the organization. Since sustainability is a relatively new area of work, the CSO is often perceived as a thought leader if (s)he has a progressive and pragmatic perspective of policy and action.

A person who understands business, can learn new concepts, has a sense of the technicalities of issues related to sustainability and is able to communicate well can embrace the multiple facets that the role of CSO can address, though there is substantial value in being a technical expert or a developmental expert as well. The profile of the CSO determines which of the four core perspectives – strategy, risk management, operations or communication – sees greater action within and outside the organization.

Whatever the profile of the CSO, there are three broad areas of action the CSO must pursue in greater or lesser degree – make the business greener (more climate friendly), enable entry into new green businesses (e.g. renewable energy, shared mobility, waste to energy, etc.) and enhance the social license to operate.

Sustainability is the greatest global challenge that we face. These are the ‘the best of times’ for a CSO. Imagine being in a role that simultaneously enables organizational resilience and makes the world a safer, better place. The present ecosystem offers the CSO a golden opportunity to adopt green technologies, trigger innovation, growth and inclusive development. The planet can only benefit if the new tribe of CSOs are successful in their work.

Anirban Ghosh, Chief Sustainability officer, Mahindra Group

Business sustainability