When sustainability is discussed, ESG specialists usually emphasise the significance of having a committed individual responsible for overseeing initiatives. This can help to maintain and enhance sustainability across the entire organisation.

Linda Fisher was the first person to receive the title of “Chief Sustainability Officer” in 2004, when she was hired by DuPont. Following this, there has been a surge of similar positions cropping up at major companies. As of 2021 the number of CSOs worldwide has tripled, in comparison to 2016.

The duties of the CSO position have continued to evolve with the ever-changing ESG landscape. But the question is: what exactly is the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer and does your organisation need one?

The Role of the CSO

There still seems to be a lack of clarity surrounding the role of the CSO. Having a CSO doesn’t immediately guarantee company-wide sustainability. Sustainability cannot be left to just one person, or confined to one area of an organisation. It needs to be integrated throughout all levels of a company.

The role of a CSO includes overseeing risk, fostering resilience, and guiding the behaviour of stakeholders: employees, businesses, investors, governments, and regulators.

A CSO is responsible for a company’s environmental impact, resources and plans. Although environmental issues are critical to the role, there is a growing number of CSOs who are bringing the S and G aspects of ESG into the role too.

The scope of the CSOs responsibilities differs greatly across industries and organisations, depending on their significant social and environmental influence. However, their general function is to analyse potential changes in the external sustainability landscape, then assess the strategic implications for their company. They then need to help ensure that their company fulfils its environmental, social, and governance commitments.

The Responsibilities of the CSO

The specific responsibilities the CSO has in managing an organisation’s ESG and sustainability goals can include:

Ensuring regulatory compliance. 

CSOs need to be able to anticipate regulatory trends and their implications. They need to make sure that the organisation adheres to the applicable ESG legislation and enact internal policies to ensure this. 

Because these rules are constantly shifting, a CSO must make every effort to ensure their companies operate within current legal boundaries. Changes to ESG frameworks on a national and global scale should always be monitored.

ESG monitoring and reporting. 

CSOs should be utilising ESG reports to help track companies sustainability performances, collecting the correct data for the necessary reporting standards and comparing this with industry peers.

With comprehensive ESG reports, the CSO can determine if their sustainability targets are realistic and achievable and decide what further actions need to be taken. Many organisations are opting to use ESG reporting software, like Convene ESG, to help the reporting process. This means that a CSO can spend more time developing and enacting ESG initiatives.

Overseeing sustainability initiatives. 

CSOs need to plan and carry out company-wide initiatives that increase overall sustainability while maintaining profitability. Strategies typically include environmental efforts such as recycling, waste and pollution reduction, energy and resource conservation, and emissions control. CSOs should also focus on social and governance practices like ensuring the well-being and safety of employees.

The responsibility of ensuring that each department in the organisation is given a role, along with instructions and resources, to accomplish their sustainability objectives, is down to the CSO.

Communicating with stakeholders. 

The CSO is responsible for organising sustainability initiatives across the company by communicating and collaborating with other Board members, as well as internal and external stakeholders. 

Working together, they need to identify key issues and concerns or matters important to stakeholders, and to manage sustainability strategy, coordination of how to execute plans, the progress of the initiatives, and sustainability reports. Only by ensuring the cooperation of all executives and board members can a CSO plan and carry out successful ESG efforts to achieve sustainability goals.

Building an organisation’s ESG knowledge and capabilities. 

CSOs need to be able to identify knowledge gaps within the organisation and adopt educational initiatives to make up for these gaps. A CSO should focus on embedding sustainability into a company's processes and decision-making. 

A CSO needs to not only introduce initiatives and follow through with them, but also foster cultural change on a company-wide level.

The Importance of the CSO

Having someone in charge of sustainability and ESG initiatives sends a powerful signal that an organisation is taking these issues seriously. 

For companies just beginning their ESG journey, the focus is more on compliance and staying within current ESG laws. They need good leadership for this, but not necessarily at the C-level.

But, in more recent years, the number of companies just beginning their ESG journey is considerably decreasing. With the growing complexity and widespread adoption of ESG initiatives within companies, the CSO is becoming an increasingly common and effective role. 

Consumer demands and regulatory pressures are pushing organisations to develop comprehensive sustainability strategies that not only tackle environmental issues but also consider the social and governance consequences of their efforts.

The presence of a Chief Sustainability Officer can have a profound impact on your company's ESG strategy and operations. While reporting, measuring, and communication to stakeholders remain important, a CSO goes beyond these tasks. They play a crucial role in integrating sustainability into every aspect of your company's functioning. What sets CSOs apart from other lower-ranking ESG managers is their proactive involvement in driving innovation and mitigating various risks, whether related to ESG or other areas.

A CSO helps to align a company's goals with its sustainability strategy, and then embed that strategy into both company culture and an organisation's overall mission. Collaboration, orchestration, and knowledge management are therefore essential aspects of this role. 

A company needs an experienced individual with effective communication skills to help convince, motivate and manage various internal and external stakeholders, who can hold conflicting viewpoints and goals in regards to sustainability. 

The Potential Issues of the CSO

Companies want CSOs to take charge of the ESG agenda. They want people with strategic and business knowledge as well as expertise in the traditional areas of legal, compliance, environmental and health and safety.

Many CSOs, while capable, find it harder to enact ESG initiatives and make a company more sustainable once in position. This can be because of a lack of communication, unclear reporting lines and a lack of a relationship with the Board and high-ranking executives. This can make it hard for the CSO to secure the necessary time to make the changes needed. 

This difficulty is often exacerbated by the fact that many CSOs come from outside a company and can lack the institutional knowledge of insiders.

Often CSOs are hired, and companies expect sustainable things to happen overnight, or without having to institute fundamental organisational change. CSOs need to be able to collaborate with all levels of a company, and be given time to facilitate the necessary sustainability discussions.

Additionally, there is still a lack of clarity about a CSO’s tasks and accountabilities. The outcome of this is fragmentation, internal rivalry for resources, and inefficiency because of overlapping roles. 

While CSOs can just focus on environmental sustainability, with the rising focus on ESG, they might also be involved in social and governance initiatives. This means that CSOs need to have close relations with several different departments, and this needs to be established early on, to avoid confusion and overlap. 

Fragmentation and a lack of clarity is common when new roles are introduced, and organisations should make sure they have prepared for this friction as much as possible. 

When hiring and introducing a CSO to a company ecosystem, executives need to have considered what exactly they need the CSO for. As well as this, they need to have ensured that there is clarity in the responsibilities of the CSO for their specific organisation and its needs. A CSO isn’t going to magically make all ESG worries disappear, especially without the proper support, knowledge and environment. 


At the heart of the increased demand for CSO leadership are the evolving priorities for managing companies’ impact on the environment and society.

CSOs can make a difference to companies of all sizes. On top of that, sustainability is becoming a more complex practice every day for organisations, one that requires a person in charge to ensure things run smoothly.

With sustainability at the top of most businesses’ agendas, the role of CSO is likely to become even more relevant.

Convene can help with your sustainability goals

Convene ESG is an essential tool for CSOs and the ESG team.

Chief Sustainability Officers can count on Convene ESG, our new ESG reporting platform. The innovative ESG software will substantially increase your efficiency and effectiveness in designing and delivering measurable sustainability results.

Convene ESG offers a wide range of valuable features, including precise ESG data tracking, reporting compliance, and timely sustainability data collection. This program gives CSOs the power to review a companies’ full ESG profile with the latest information to produce boardroom-ready reports and inform initiatives with ease.

Ready to learn more? Visit this page to find out how Convene ESG can help take your company to the next level of excellence in sustainability ESG matters.

Lottie Wright

Written by Lottie Wright

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