Climate Action

The ‘4 Cs’ of being a Chief Sustainability Officer

Susanne Pulverer, Chief Executive Officer & Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA India.

The influence and importance of Chief Sustainability Officers is increasing. Image: REUTERS/Samuel Rajkumar

Gareth Francis
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • What qualities does a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) need?
  • CSOs from Google, Microsoft, Siemens and First Abu Dhabi Bank discuss four key attributes which help them succeed in their role.
  • The climate crisis continues to dominate long-term threats identified by the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

A decade ago, the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) did not exist in many organizations. But with climate change-related risks dominating the long-term global risks identified by the World Economic Forum, businesses around the world are looking to reduce their environmental impact. And CSOs have increasing influence and responsibility.

So, what qualities are needed to thrive in this role? We’ve spoken with leading global CSOs to uncover four key attributes that allow them to succeed.

Global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term
Environmental concerns dominate in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024. Image: World Economic Forum

1. Collaboration

The ability to form partnerships inside and outside of one’s organization is critical, says Shargiil Bashir, CSO at First Abu Dhabi Bank.

“We can learn so much from different industries,” he explains. “I don't see any competition in sustainability. We need the world and we need the planet to win on this journey. So for me, there's no competition with my peers on sustainability. We can knowledge-share … to understand what has worked well in other places, because it's still such an evolving topic.”

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2. Credibility

In a challenging business environment, it’s imperative for CSOs to show the value of their recommendations.

“Sustainability is most powerful if it's an inherent part of how you look at your business,” says Judith Wiese, CSO of Siemens. “At Siemens, we've been very clear about our own decarbonization roadmap, and what has helped greatly is that you really convert some of your sustainability targets into currency that the business understands.”

By making assessments of carbon pricing in the run up to 2030, Wiese has been able to signpost the financial benefits of reducing the company’s carbon footprint. “There are business cases [for] sustainability that you can develop very credibly,” she concludes.


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3. Commercial awareness

Of course, there is more to sustainability than reducing costs or reacting to societal pressures. With the right mindset, CSOs can help drive new business lines. As an information and innovation-focused company, Google has been able to react to search trends to provide better results for their customers.

“[People] want helpful sustainability information,” says Kate Brandt, CSO, Google. “We see that in Google Trends. People want to know how to buy electric vehicles, how to put solar on their rooftop. And so we're trying to give them helpful tools to do that – calculators for buying an EV, information on the solar potential of their rooftop.”

Brandt adds that while commercial opportunities will look different for other organizations, understanding them is an important part of being a CSO.

“Balancing that with risks and transparency and public reporting is becoming not only a nice-to-have but a requirement for many companies,” she says.

4. Commitment

It perhaps goes without saying that commitment is a prized quality when leading sustainability efforts. Melanie Nakagawa, CSO at Microsoft, reflects on a well-known proverb.

“Our planet today is not something that we've inherited from our ancestors, but that we borrowed from our children. I think that's a great quote to embody why the stakes are so high,” says Nakagawa.

“This is a planet that we all need to live and thrive on and be productive on. And unfortunately, as the temperatures continue to warm on our planet, it makes that much more difficult. The role of all of us coming together, from governments to businesses to non-profits, is vital if we're actually going to create this planetary transformation.

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Climate ActionBusinessLeadershipSustainable Development
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