Why More UK Firms Should Appoint Chief Sustainability Officers - Written by Acre's Marie Cloherty for Green Business

06 September 2022 by Marie Cloherty
blog author

​Acre's Marie Cloherty, Director of Sustainable Business unpacks the myriad benefits Chief Sustainability Officers can bring to large businesses in her latest article for Business Green.

Original Source: Business Green | Published: 5th September 2022

Sustainability is key to the way we all must make decisions for the long term - will our current resources, communities and energy sources be available to us all in 10, 20 or even 30 years' time? And if not, how do we change that? With the urgency being too great to wait for governments to mobilise, we continue to look to organisations to create meaningful change.

So how are businesses rising to the challenge? Unless you have been under a rock since the global pandemic, anyone running a business now understands that once the foundation is laid, sustainability can drive opportunity, transformation, innovation, and growth.

However, even as we watch the much-discussed war on talent play out in the sustainability space, at a leadership-level, we just still "aren't quite there" yet. It is only in the last few years that a board-level representation of sustainability has become an expectation within a modern business.

Acre has found that whilst the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) role has taken off in North America and in several EMEA regions, businesses in the UK are not adopting the stand-alone CSO role with the same aplomb.

There are potentially a few reasons for this. If an organisation's understanding of, or commitment to, sustainability is limited, then bringing in a practitioner who hasn't already built relationships internally and worked across a number of business areas or functions, is likely to create a frustrating pairing.

Imagine Clark Kent being parachuted in to run Wayne Enterprises - the CSO is expected to ‘move the needle' almost immediately, but doesn't have direct access to the right conversations or programmes to apply a holistic ‘ESG lens' and influence critical decisions across the business, before they gather momentum.

This can unfortunately result in sustainability being a ‘nice to have' bolt-on function, failing to have cultural and strategic impact. This approach is less effective to drive change at the astounding pace needed - and expected - by society and the environment.

For many businesses in the UK and more widely in EMEA that are seen as the earlier pioneers in sustainability, sustainability leadership has manifested as a bolt-on set of responsibilities for a more traditional functional leaders (think Corporate Affairs Director, Legal Secretary, Chief Marketing Officer). It has become a bigger part of their role than they could have ever imagined it would be - unassuming superheroes, already understanding the systems within which they operate, how to influence within them, tackling planetary and societal injustices, by stealth.

Our modern-day CSO is an influencer and networker, who can translate what can be inherently technical, to many diverse types of audience, but increasingly - finally - more in the boardroom than ever before. As a result, sustainability leaders are finding themselves brought into early-stage decision making across procurement, commercial and investment discussions.

It is going to be important that businesses see the dual-CSO role as transitionary; someone to build networks of champions internally and create appetite to do things differently, rather than bringing in someone who is technically qualified to drive things from A to B.

How does an individual move towards a CSO position? For those businesses who are early on in their journey, sustainable business may present itself as ESG. This is typically reporting, and governance led, and gives sustainability professionals access to financial leadership, investors, and strategy teams. Fundamentally, understanding these functions will be key to securing headcount and funding, and provides a unique opportunity for sustainability leaders to really hone their understanding of building a commercial business case. This is a vital stepping-stone in an individual's journey towards CSO.

There is still a long way for most businesses to go before we see a truly ‘embedded' culture of sustainability. Without genuine, wholehearted commitment from the leadership team, the role of a CSO will struggle to have the impact that is expected.

We have seen businesses play with the CSO concept for several years but finally we are starting to see the impact a modern-day CSO could have on what society and the environment looks like in the future - and that is way beyond a 2030 net zero goal.

The best way we can support businesses and CSOs to have an impact is to assess the value placed on the role, and to ensure the person delivering shows up with the right inherent behaviours to be effective in the role. These people aren't wearing a cape, and they perhaps don't have a big shiny well-recognised sustainability plan, but they have the enthusiasm, knowledge glint in the eye hinting at the superhero underneath.

For some businesses, a true CSO may take several years to emerge and for others, they may already be with you in another role. Finding these superheroes early and quickly is important.

With 13 years’ commercial experience spanning business development and team leadership, Marie has placed multiple executive-level positions across multi-stakeholder initiatives, consultancies and industry & now oversees our Sustainability Team. From field to board room, she understands the crucial soft skills that enable purpose-driven professionals working to leverage the power of private finance to ultimately solve some of the world’s greatest modern challenges. Her areas of expertise span executive search, interim, advisory and leadership assessment across the broad sustainability agenda.