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How chief sustainability officers are bringing more accountability and less waste to their companies — and the world

Erica Sweeney   

How chief sustainability officers are bringing more accountability and less waste to their companies — and the world

  • Many companies have hired chief sustainability officers, or CSOs, in recent years.
  • Their job is to drive projects that help organizations meet their sustainability goals.
  • Here's a look at how some top CSOs are making strides in their organizations.

As companies commit to being more environmentally conscious and launch initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, they often need someone to drive these programs. To face these challenges many organizations are hiring chief sustainability officers, or CSOs.

These leaders collaborate with company executives and stakeholders to develop and oversee an organization's approach to sustainability. In 2021, companies that appointed a CSO tripled compared to the previous year, according to a PwC survey. Wells Fargo appointed its first CSO, Robyn Luhning, in April, and UnitedHealthcare Group named Patricia Lewis as its first CSO in February.

Several factors are driving the trend. Ann Tracy, chief sustainability officer at Colgate-Palmolive, said mostly it's pressure from stakeholders, employees, and consumers, who are more likely to pay more for brands that are sustainable, according to an IBM Institute for Business Value study. Investors are increasingly weighing environmental, social, and governance factors, while governments also pushing to disclose related metrics, including a proposed rule from the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US.

When organizations fall behind on ESG progress, they risk losing investors and customers.

"The need for ESG leadership to help get companies organized is critical," said Tracy, who's been with Colgate-Palmolive for more than 30 years and transitioned into the CSO role that the company created in 2020 after releasing its 2025 Sustainability and Social Impact Strategy. "When companies make commitments and pledges, stakeholders want to see action."

Public sustainability commitments ensure accountability

Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs and sustainability at Audi of America, said the company has made public commitments to reduce its carbon footprint by 30% by 2025 and produce its last internal combustion engine vehicle in 2025 in favor of electric vehicles. This enables him to stay on track and hold Audi accountable to meet its sustainability goals.

"I'm able to stand up for the brand and what we're doing, but also continue to push internally to be more innovative and aggressive on emissions, water consumption, and using more sustainable materials," he said, adding that he's required to report progress on sustainability initiatives.

CSOs need a "place at the strategy table" to be effective, said David Larcker, director of the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The role needs to be a key part of executive leadership, meet with the company's board of directors, and have a budget, and CSOs should be embedded in the company's operations — otherwise, it's "window dressing," he said.

When Reeder joined the company in 2018, he gave a "science talk" to the leadership team to raise awareness about the need to move to electric vehicles to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

"Based on that initial investment and support from the leadership, I feel there's great receptivity to any idea that I bring forward around sustainability," he said. "We've made changes that have been considered for over a decade and just couldn't get over the threshold that now within the last couple of years, have been able to move forward."

Reeder is continuing to make strides. He recently spearheaded an internal carbon pricing program, in which Audi charges itself $200 per ton of carbon emissions — higher than the current interim federal social cost of $51 a ton — with an intention of offsetting emissions from employee commuting and business travel.

Tracking progress on sustainability to drive culture change

Sandra Noonan joined the fast-casual restaurant chain Just Salad as chief sustainability officer in 2019. She was a loyal customer and appreciated the company's Reusable Bowl program and its sustainability initiative. She said concern for the environment is especially crucial for restaurants since about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions are tied to the food system.

"I had a lot of leeway to shape the CSO role," she said. Reporting directly to the company's CEO and the fact that sustainability is in "the bones of the company" empowers her to tackle problems like reducing single-use packaging and food waste.

In 2021, the Reusable Bowl program kept more than three tons of waste out of landfills. The company also estimated that more than 90% of its food packaging was made from recycled or renewable materials.

"I get involved in figuring out how we operationalize our ideas and our targets," Noonan said. "I also spend a lot of time on metrics and looking at our greenhouse gas emissions breakdown and going, 'OK, what programs would reduce our footprint?'"

To mitigate food waste, Just Salad partners with Too Good To Go, a platform that connects customers with restaurants that have food surplus, and some locations also compost leftover food. In March, Just Salad's carbon labels showing the emissions estimates for each menu item received verification by Planet FWD, a carbon management platform.

By talking directly with customers and working with Just Salad's marketing team to spread the word about its sustainability programs, one of Noonan's top priorities is to make Just Salad "a voice for culture change and changing norms that are harmful to nature."

Educating customers and stakeholders about the value of sustainable behaviors

While inspiring a culture change is a goal for CSOs, changing customer behavior can be a challenge. "Even though consumers want to be more sustainable, many don't want to compromise on convenience, on price, and on quality — and they don't want to change their behavior," Colgate's Tracy said.

Overcoming this "consumer intention action gap," according to Tracy, depends on consumer education. Colgate's "Save Water" public awareness campaign, which urged people to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, has saved an estimated 206 billion gallons of water and 10.8 million metric tons of carbon emissions since 2016. And last year, about 85% of Colgate-Palmolive's packaging across categories and materials was recyclable.

To reduce plastic waste, the brand launched a recyclable toothpaste tube earlier this year and shared the technology with the industry, including competitors. Colgate also debuted the Keep toothbrush, which features an aluminum handle that consumers keep and a replaceable brush.

Tracy said that finding creative ways to educate and influence teams across a company about sustainability is central to a CSO's work. She works closely with the company's chief financial officer on sustainability accounting and balancing the cost and benefits of sustainable products since consumers don't want to pay more.

CSOs may experience pushback within their companies and skepticism from consumers at times, Tracy said, but the job is "by and large trying to drive positive impact and hopefully helping Colgate be presented in a positive light for the work we do and the accomplishments we've made."


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