Hiring of Chief Sustainability Officers Surged in 2020; Rise in Women, Little Diversity

The Weinreb Group, a boutique executive-search firm specializing in the recruitment of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs), as well as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) leaders, today published a report on the US leading chief sustainability officers, or CSOs. These are the 95 people who have the most influence over how America’s largest U.S. corporations reckon with global challenges, from climate change and the water crisis to, increasingly, economic inequality and systemic racism. Drawing from insights from Fortune 500 companies, “The Chief Sustainability Officer 10 Years Later: The Rise of ESG in the C-Suite,” revealed a dramatic increase in hiring in 2020, with more CSOs recruited last year than the previous three years combined. The number of CSOs has soared from just 29 in 2011 to 95 today, shaping how their corporations not only reduce their environmental impacts, but also, more recently, engage with and support issues of social justice.

“The past year was among the most disruptive in generations — not only COVID-19, but upheaval that brought new attention to social justice, climate change, and an ever-widening political divide,” said Ellen Weinreb, founder and CEO of the Weinreb Group. “Our report looks at how these trends are shaping business, society and the C-Suite. CSOs are the most powerful people in business when it comes to determining how companies grapple with these issues.”

The report, leveraging input from leaders with the title “Chief Sustainability Officer” who work in the United States at US publicly-traded companies, is a 10-year follow-up to The Weinreb Group’s first CSO report in 2011. The new report revealed the following trends:

  • More companies hired their first CSO in 2020 than the previous three years combined: Last year alone, 31 companies hired their first CSO in 2020. The field has grown by more than 228%, from just 29 CSOs in 2011 to 95 in 2021.
  • The CSO role is expanding — and shifting: “Sustainability” isn’t exclusively about the environment anymore. The role has also come to incorporate social justice, especially with the rapid growth of, and increased attention on, environmental, social, and governance, or ESG.
  • More women; little racial diversity: The percentage of women in CSO roles has almost doubled, with women now accounting for 54% of CSO positions. However, despite the movement toward gender balance and the expanded focus on social justice, the CSO role remains overwhelmingly white.
  • CSO teams are growing — but responsibility is decentralized: Sustainability teams are expanding, with the average team size increasing from five professionals in 2011 to 15 today. Yet, in the corporate leadership hierarchy, CSOs are not quite as close as they once were to the CEO.
  • CSO succession is not a guarantee: Some firms have started eliminating the CSO position entirely, which is a potential counterpoint to other data. “The CSO role is undergoing profound shifts, including expanding beyond the ‘E’ of ESG and the climate crisis to include social justice and equity, recognizing the intersectionality of enormously complex challenges,” Weinreb says.

Download the report (pdf)

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