“Who are the people in charge of climate-change issues at large companies?” “What time frames are they looking at?” These questions, posed by Technology Review’s top editor, were the spark for my latest story, which appears in the upcoming (July/August 2016) issue of TR and can be found online here.
The article–part of a broader TR Business Report about climate change–charts the evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) role. CSOs formulate their companies’ climate-change policies and strategies and help implement/execute them. CSOs are not new–corporations started appointing them in 2004–but the job has new momentum in the wake of last year’s Paris climate talks. Post-COP21 there is more climate change-related work to do (in terms of reporting on carbon emissions, water usage, etc.); more public attention focused on it; and greater motivation for companies to be proactive in this area.
While CSOs, in general, appear to be enjoying greater authority compared to years past, a number still seem to focus primarily on philanthropy, community affairs, marketing, and corporate communications tasks. In my reporting, I sought out the CSOs who were doing more than this–the ones who were actually leading ambitious climate change-reduction agendas and had the ear of their CEOs.
That’s one odd thing about CSOs; though their title implies they are C-suite executives, their rank within their corporate hierarchies is typically more like that of a vice president.
My reporting led me to the CSOs of Ikea, Keurig Green Mountain, Nike, and PG&E, all of whom seemed to fit the newly empowered CSO paradigm. Ikea’s CSO is particularly impressive. He has a Ph.D. in environmental physics, formerly co-founded and ran an environmental NGO, and is the driving force behind the retailer’s aggressive plans to produce as much energy as it consumes, via renewable sources, and to buy its most important raw materials, including cotton and wood, from sources certified by nonprofits as “more sustainable”. What’s more, he is a bona fide member of Ikea’s nine-person top-executive team, along with the company’s CEO and CFO.
As someone who admires activists, I found it heartening that some huge multinational companies, including Ikea and Nike, have essentially hired activists as their CSOs. The world needs aggressive, inspired leaders pushing companies to reduce their carbon footprint and these executives are showing how to do this from the inside.