​Can CSOs solve the climate crisis? • Written by Acre's Marie Cloherty for Business Leader

24 January 2023 by Marie Cloherty
blog author

Written by Marie Cloherty for Business Leader, published on 16.01.23, original source: Can CSOs Solve the Climate Crisis?

In this guest article, Marie Cloherty, Executive Director of Sustainable Business at Acre, discusses what can be done following last year’s COP27 and the lack of action against the climate crisis.

Last year’s COP27 left many feeling flat. I was one of them. And let’s be honest – the conference fell short of any real commitments to decarbonise with the speed and urgency that is necessary. As global temperatures continue to rise, it’s clear that businesses will need to take the most action to solve the challenges we now face.

So what can be done? Firstly, a clear and defined step change within a business is crucial. Unless we all treat the climate crisis as a priority, the world and its resources will fundamentally dissipate. Businesses cannot afford to behave as they always have, where they consistently put profit over purpose.

To deliver real change, sustainability needs to be embedded into a businesses’ overall strategy. It is about evaluating and adjusting your entire ecosystem and transforming your business to deliver real shareholder value.

Transformation is difficult, but it is possible. Would anyone have thought 30 years ago the preferred method of communication would be Whatsapp? History has shown that we can adapt, but the difference this time is that we don’t have 30 years to do so. There is a huge task ahead and we must activate everybody’s potential around us, now.

The rise, fall, and resurrection of the CSO

The CSO role began in the early noughties. These early architects of sustainable change within organisations started a movement which ultimately generated significant change. Messages were well-communicated and left workforces inspired to integrate sustainability across functions.

During this period, however, carbon offsetting grew in popularity and a large swathe of greenwashing took place – the option of buying credits meant businesses thought about offsetting rather than reducing their carbon emissions. It gave companies the option of ticking a box without re-evaluating and decarbonising their operations, which significantly damaged the credibility of both sustainability and the CSO role. As a result, the CSO role gradually disappeared.

It was not until the global pandemic of March 2020 that sustainability entered board-level discussions with aplomb. Suddenly, key workers were spotlighted; health and safety practitioners found themselves moving from the shop floor to the boardroom as they were drafted to help their organisations protect the workforce both physically, from the dangers of a widespread virus, but also mentally, from the shock of losing jobs and working from home.

Enter the new iteration of the CSO; with a need to inherit the skills to be able to focus on narrative, ensuring sustainability is owned by every player, they also need a strong technical team around them to support with complex issues such as the removal of Scope 3 emissions from the supply chain, to tackling a complex and highly-nuanced, but much-needed focus on the equity, diversity, and inclusion agenda. With this much responsibility, it cannot all fall to One Figurehead taking the stage.

Collaboration and communication

The lion's share of the CSO’s role is to remain convinced of the end goals & then to collaborate, lobby, influence, activate, and inspire, like never before. ESG is not the exclusive responsibility of the CSO or their team – everyone must take responsibility.

CSOs, for their part, need to be committed and determined, believing that capital can and will be deployed towards these issues and mobilising all people around them to enact major transformational change.

First, CSOs need to interact with the board to align ESG with the strategic direction of the organisation. With a seat at the top table, they are uniquely positioned to exert influence, demonstrating the business case for greater emphasis on sustainable finance and offering robust strategic advice to the CEO. The board can, for their part, reinforce their organisation’s commitment to ESG by building ESG goals into executive remuneration and incentive plans.

Finally, CSOs need to work closely with governance, compliance, and risk teams. Doing so is important to ensuring that these initiatives can be sponsored and be implemented. Many CSOs are now looking to create strong governance frameworks around what they are embedding, and they need support from people in the organisation who will be more traditional and conservative in their view, which is as important as injecting maverick innovation, if we are to achieve real balance and success in turbulent economic times.

The war on talent: partnering for success

The skillset required of CSOs is unique and hard to come by in one individual when businesses face a war on ESG talent. The best way forward is to hire a blend of individuals who can embed sustainability, each touching different aspects of the ever-growing ESG agenda.

A powerful dynamic is coming to the fore as companies pair commercial business leaders with individuals with technical sustainable expertise. Within this partnership, the CSO will raise the profile of sustainability at an executive level. They will have a track record of bringing sustainability to bear upon a business’s main strategy, aligning priorities and effectively embedding sustainability policies.

This individual has a strong commercial understanding – they know how to navigate complex organisations, their own sectors and can corral the troops. Their credible number two is often a technical expert who understands how to achieve technical sustainability goals.

Ultimately, the CSO leads a group of individuals who can effectively communicate, mobilise, and solve the technical challenges, shaping the workforce to share the load and come along on the journey.

The road ahead

As companies either begin or continue to transform their businesses and cultures, the CSO and their team have a critical role to play, not least in ensuring the vision embeds across all functions, from the board to the newest starter, but that economic factors do not cloud the major issues at hand. After all, sustainable businesses are proved to be more profitable and more future-proofed than any other type of business.

We can no longer afford to simply talk the talk with effective marketing. Do not underestimate that your own staff and your future hires will be holding your organisation to account, like never before. Any hint of rhetoric will be rightly called out. It is time to rethink how we learn from previous mistakes and mobilise everyone within our business towards sustainable business for future generations.

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.