In retail, corporate sustainability is no longer simply a marketing term. In fact, being environmentally conscious is now at the strategic core of some of the world’s largest companies. Chief executives like Virgin’s Richard Branson and P&G’s David Taylor are being proactive in their approach to sustainability – and some firms are going one step further and recruiting Chief Sustainability Officers to ensure the green credentials of their organisations aren’t being overlooked.

Understanding the role of the CSO

A Chief Sustainability Officer typically sits on the board with the same level of seniority as C-level finance heads and technical executives (in other words, they report directly to the Chief Executive Officer).

Increasing numbers of investors are seeing a good sustainability initiative as a necessary strategy for survival, differentiation and growth. Given the headline news on an almost daily basis regarding climate emergencies, corporate competitiveness and sustainability are now inseparable.

Nothing new

In the past three years, the number of high-profile retail companies using a retail executive search to appoint a Chief Sustainability Officer for the first time has risen sharply. Firms like Diageo, Ralph Lauren and Nissan have all recruited for this position recently – although, for some companies, a CSO is nothing new.

Forward-thinking, progressive organisations like DuPont and Nike both made CSO hires back in 2004 when sustainability was just as important but lacked the coverage and awareness it carries today.

The evolution of executive sustainability

The current increase in demand for sustainability officers reflects a mature and tempered shift in corporate environmentalism. Today’s efforts by retail companies to become more eco-friendly has nothing to do with cynical “greenwashing” attempts, and more to do with setting a good corporate example for future generations.

In 2019, two-thirds of large retail companies now incorporate sustainability into their core mission statements. Retail executives are increasingly listening to regulators, scientists, investors and customers to reach a consensus on how to ethically deliver value-for-money products that are carbon neutral – or how to offset carbon deficits in the case of products which aren’t.

Is your business ready for a CSO?

As sustainability takes on increasing relevance in the corporate world, the time has come for companies to consider recruiting their own CSO. While some might be reluctant, it’s worth considering that a CSO could be worth the price tag, in comparison to outsourcing sustainability research and development to third-party operatives.

Ultimately, environmental consciousness is here to stay, and this means that retailers at all levels need executive guidance on how to adjust to better serve society as a whole.