What Do Sustainability Executives Do? Let Us Know

ID-10076073By Robert G. Eccles & Kathleen Miller Perkins

Many companies now have chief sustainability executives.  According to a 2012 MIT Sloan & BCG survey of 2600 companies, 16% were identified as having a “Corporate Sustainability Officer”.[1]   And it seems that the CSO profession is growing.   According to a 2013 Greenbiz survey, the number of companies with a full time sustainability manager doubled between 1995 and 2003, and again between 2003 and 2008.[2]  This rapid growth has begun to taper, but new managers are still being added to companies.

So what do these roles entail? We all know what chief executive officers and chief financial officers do, and where they fit in a company’s hierarchy.  Their responsibilities tend to be consistent across companies.  With sustainability officers, the situation is less clear. Their job titles and even the nature of the jobs seem to vary with each company, industry or region’s particular needs and challenges. While a few studies have targeted this role for study, they vary in where they place their focus.  Most are not global but rather focus on the country where the researchers reside.  Some focus on environmental sustainability only. A few limit their research to those with the title of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) while others consider those with sustainability responsibilities no matter what the title or level in the organisation.  The methologies for collecting the data vary as well.  Some are restricted to case studies while others rely on surveys.  These variations make it difficult to compare the findings across studies.

That’s why we decided to conduct a global study of sustainability executives, no matter what their titles.  We are interested in where they fit in the organisational hierarchy, how the decision was made on where to place them, and how their presence impacts the involvement in sustainability of others in the organisation.  We are especially interested in their relationships with other senior leaders.

We are kicking off our project with a short survey that is administered to sustainability executives around the globe.  We hope that the results of the survey increase our understanding of the issues.  Yet we also know that surveys are limited in the amount of detail that they render.  Therefore we will follow up with interviews that are informed by the results of our survey.

We hope that our friends in the corporate sector will spend a few minutes answering some questions about the role of the sustainability executive in their organisations.

Thanks in advance to our corporate colleagues for participating in this survey.

Eccles is a Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. Miller Perkins is the CEO of Miller Consultants and the primary author of the survey.


[1] MIT Sloan/BCG, “The Innovation Bottom Line: Findings from the 2012 Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study and Research Report,” 2013. P. 18. http://sloanreview.mit.edu/reports/sustainability-innovation/

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