ven as the science behind global warming research is thrown deeper into doubt by the recent email debacle at the U.K.'s East Anglia University — the presumptive repository of climate change data — corporations know they need a strategy for sustainable growth. Enter the chief sustainability officer (CSO), whose role in the corporate firmament can be a radiant, stand-alone star on the one hand, or merely part of a constellation of senior managers charged with green building practices, enterprise-wide recycling initiatives and related tasks on the other.
CSOs and related titles are on the payrolls of most major corporations — Wal-Mart, Dow Chemical, Coca Cola and Georgia Pacific, to name a few. But do they share a single Green Imperative? No, and it stands to reason that they don't. A global shared-services provider's sustainability strategy will necessarily be different from that of a plastics manufacturer. Their strategies may overlap in some instances, such as a possible mandate to use "green construction" when embarking on new facilities projects. (How to avoid LEED-certification pitfalls is the subject of the sidebar.)
But CSOs, to varying degrees, are charting a new course, determining whether the shareholders', customers' or CFO's agenda comes first, for example. Consider this input from CSOs who participated in a late 2008 survey of sustainability executives by New York–based Hudson Gain Corp., an executive leadership and human resources firm:
There's not much in the way of consensus, but then executives in such diverse sectors as automobile manufacturing, food and beverage, financial services, technology and other industries took part in the exercise. Hudson Gain's "Going Green?" report is based on research of more than 1,200 organizations and interviews with more than 60 sustainability executives.
"As executives take on the sustainability role, it becomes more and more strategic, which allows them a seat at the [senior management] table, if they don't already have one," says Hudson Gain Senior Vice President Victoria Zelin. As for corporate real estate executives, she adds: "In addition to being able to incorporate sustainability considerations into locating new sites, they can get into a lot of other things as well. They can now interact with everyone in the organization. It's a natural progression."
Sustainability represents numerous ways for the real estate manager to introduce cost savings, notes Zelin. He or she can easily demonstrate the cost advantages of turning some little-used office space into a video conference and Webinar center and eliminating thousands of dollars in travel expenses, for instance. But more than that will be required for the CSO, or real estate executive with CSO duties, to stand apart.
The trick, says Hudson Gain Managing Partner Roger Thorne, is to leverage the corporate real estate role into a true leadership role with the organization.
"Once people see that you are creating a sustainable organization, then the leadership and strategic importance of your role come to the surface very quickly," he says. "Sustainability is your ticket to your seat at the senior management table. Ultimately, in our view, the chief sustainability officer of a company needs to be the president, because he is responsible for making sure that the business runs on a perpetual basis and does what is necessary to protect its people and the planet and to make sure the types of activities it's involved in respect and promote that agenda."
Hudson Gain's "Going Green?" report reveals several skills essential to being an effective and successful CSO, however one arrives at the assignment. They are: