Chief sustainability officers (CSOs) help organizations ensure that their business practices are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. Sustainability professionals develop, manage, and monitor a company’s sustainability strategy, and are responsible for improving the organization’s environmental, social, and economic impact.
CSOs work with management, employees, customers, stakeholders, and corporate shareholders to minimize the company's impact on the environment. In recent years, CSOs have become more prominent in the C-suite at large companies, as the likes of Cargill, Diageo, Emerson, P&G, Mastercard, Tyson Foods, Citigroup, General Motors, and International Paper have all appointed people to this position.
What Does a Chief Sustainability Officer Do?
The role of a CSO varies based on the organization. In general, this position is responsible for enacting or managing a corporate sustainability strategy. CSOs communicate and coordinate with management, shareholders, customers, and employees to address sustainability issues.
For example, Pilar Cruz, global agricultural firm Cargill’s chief sustainability officer, leads the company’s sustainability, corporate responsibility, and global communications functions.
Meanwhile, Mike Train, the senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of Emerson, a technology and industrial software provider, leads the company’s environmental sustainability strategy. A company press release reports that, “He will focus on advancing technologies and advocacy to enhance company operations and enable customer improvements through Emerson’s solutions and partnerships.”
Depending on the size and type of organization, the job description for a CSO may include any or all of these responsibilities:
- Develop and execute strategies to address energy use, resource conservation, recycling, pollution reduction, waste elimination, transportation, education, and building design.
- Create and maintain sustainability program budgets and schedules.
- Develop methodologies to assess the viability or success of sustainability initiatives.
- Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of sustainability programs.
- Evaluate and approve proposals for sustainability projects, considering factors such as cost effectiveness, technical feasibility, and integration with other initiatives.
- Develop project proposals, sustainability reports, grant applications, presentations, and marketing campaigns.
- Manage employees working on sustainability projects.
- Direct sustainability program objectives and operations to ensure compliance with local, state, federal, and environmental laws, and internal policies and regulations.
In its State of the Profession 2020 Report, media and events company GreenBiz notes that there is a wide range of compensation for sustainability managers, with annual salaries veering from $50,000 to $280,000. The range was even wider for directors, from $72,000 to $1 million, while vice presidents reported overall compensation as high as $1.2 million.
Glassdoor, meanwhile, reports average annual pay for CSOs is $68,456, though, again, salaries are wide-ranging from $31,000 to $153,000.
Education, Training, and Certification
Undergraduate Degree Requirements
CSOs should have at least a bachelor's degree in business management, environmental science, engineering, or social sciences.
Graduate Degree Requirements
Many professionals have a master’s degree in a related field. However, a graduate degree is not required for entry-level positions. For those with advanced degrees, 37% of vice presidents, 40% of directors, and 32% of managers have master of business administration degrees.
The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) provides educational tools and services for members to earn Sustainability Excellence Associate (SEA) certification, which is for professionals who are new to the field, and is a prerequisite for the Sustainability Excellence Professional (SEP) credential.
Skills and Competencies
According to Greenbiz’s The State of the Profession 2020 Report, these are the fastest rising skills for those in sustainability roles (based on the company’s analysis of LinkedIn user data):
- Circular economy
- Presentation skills
- Creative problem solving
- Corporate sustainability
- EHS (Environment, health, and safety)
- Data analysis
- Report writing
- Environmental monitoring
How to Become a Chief Sustainability Officer
There are many career paths that can lead to the position of a CSO. Professionals come from diverse backgrounds, including business, science, environmental studies, engineering, and communications.
Regardless of your major and degree, there are several options for starting a sustainability career.
Here’s an overview of what you’ll need:
- College degree: For a professional sustainability position, you’ll need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. For leadership positions, a master’s degree in a related field is preferred.
- Experience: If you don’t have related work experience, college projects, internships, and volunteering are good ways to add resume-building experience to your credentials.
- Certification: Certification options for sustainability professionals, depending on their area of specialization) include the ISSP and the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEM).
- Find a Job: In addition to using the top job sites (search using terms such as “sustainability” and your location), use job boards that focus on green and environmentally conscious jobs, including Environmental Career Opportunities, GreenBiz Jobs, and Idealist.
Work Environment and Schedule
Sustainability managers typically work in an office environment. The positions may involve long hours and frequent travel.
The job outlook for sustainable professionals is strong as companies continue to focus on environmental, social, and governance reporting, climate change issues, and employee and customer demand for sustainability.
In fact, a Deloitte “Climate Check” survey found that over 80% of executives are concerned about climate change, and almost 25% of companies plan to accelerate their environmental sustainability efforts over the next year.
The sustainability momentum is reflected in further findings in the GreenBiz State of the Profession Report. According to the study, in 2019, there was a 10% growth in job postings on LinkedIn for roles with titles related to sustainability, which GreenBiz says was above and beyond the overall growth in all jobs posted. And as of 2020, 58% of large organizations increased sustainability staffing levels over the previous two years, and the average team size has grown continually since 2010.
Related Sustainability Job Titles
Fortune 500 corporations often have CSOs on their leadership teams. Smaller companies and non-profit organizations may have sustainability professionals on staff in lower-level roles. Related job titles include:
|Corporate sustainability process manager||Sustainability coordinator|
|Director of corporate responsibility||Sustainability director|
|Director of sustainability||Sustainability manager|
|Director of sustainability programs||Sustainability officer|
|Director of sustainable design||Sustainability specialist|
|Social impact manager||Sustainability strategy associate|
|Sustainable advisor||VP, corporate social responsibility and sustainability|
The GreenBiz State of the Profession 2020 Report notes that the job titles with the highest growth in 2019 (based on the media/events company’s LinkedIn data analysis) are sustainability analyst, sustainability specialist, and sustainability advisor, all of which had a 20% increase over the two previous years.
- CSOs work to ensure an organization’s business practices are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
- An undergraduate degree is required, and a master’s degree is beneficial for people who want to build a career in the sustainability field.
- Entry-level positions provide a career track leading to a position as a CSO on a leadership team.
- A variety of job options are available for those interested in a career in sustainability.
- Search the top job sites and those focused on the environment to find available positions.