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Posted by Andrew on 23rd May 2011
Chief Sustainability Officer Remains on the Outskirts

Whether organisations are at the point of finding a new role at the senior level, namely the Chief Sustainability Officer, depends on how CSR and sustainability are being interpreted. In other words, ‘sustainability of what?’ Unfortunately, for too many Anglo-American corporations, CSR and sustainability is a marketing ploy. So in the Anglo-American model, I do not see any movement that will make real space for the CSO officer. However, not all societies approach CSR and sustainability from this same philanthropic platform, and I expect the role of this officer to be stronger in other countries that hold a different view of CSR.

The office of a CSO is unlikely to have the same meaning for an Anglo-American corporation against a major Danish firm, to a German firm, like BMW. The sustainability concern of Anglo-Americans is to identify the charities that basically add to commercial advantage or at least take pressure off the organisation. The latest research that we have on CSR and sustainability in the Anglo-American economies shows that around 95% of CSR and sustainability initiatives are driven because of marketing concerns, and a concern to look good on the annual report.

This approach represents the philanthropic platform assumed in the recent Financial Times article by Anthony Goodman titled, “Sustainability eyes its own corner office”. This model is based on the CSR assumption that people who have made money, or the organisations that have made money, should give something back to society. It is depressing to realize that only 5% or so of CSR initiatives are there to do meaningful good for the community, as opposed to promote the organisation in its particular market.

In contrast, the Scandinavian concern with social redistribution represents a second platform and it is there to do greater good for the community. The Scandinavian emphasis on CSR and sustainability is very high, and their focus has to do with management and governance. Scandinavian companies have had board positions supporting and championing CSR and sustainability for well over a decade. In fact, CSR/sustainability tends to be one of the most important board topics; to be an independent non-executive director your concern is ‘what is the CSR that is happening in this organisation’. In this case, the role of the CSO would be much more prominent.

The third CSR platform is the environment, and this is basically German. For the Germans, concern with what the organisation and the citizen are doing in the streets and on the rivers is a major issue. The board structure of the Germans allows for debate over what it really means to be operating various factories right across Germany, and including people from the community who have a direct interest in the organisation is key. German employment laws require that on a supervisory board up to 50% of board members be workers or employees. Technically on this board one could have a housewife, a doctor, a teacher, or others from the community. This tradition goes back to 1860; for the Germans environmental consciousness is built into the fabric of the organisation.

So the CSO functioning outside of the Anglo-American interpretation of sustainability is likely to gain more traction inside the business and bring about greater impact. Until Anglo-American corporations move away from the philanthropic platform, I do not see the role of the CSO having much effect on the corporate hierarchy.