But oftentimes the most important achievements of a Chief Sustainability Officer are those that are so embedded in the core business of the company that they’re practically invisible—not comprising a big budget for the sustainability department, and certainly not the sort of thing you can photograph for a sustainability report or website.
For example, consider the information-technology company EMC. As of 2013, EMC requires every software and hardware product to undergo an energy-efficiency review before launch. The review is not a separate process owned by the sustainability function, but “embedded in the corporate process for all products,” Kathrin Winkler, EMC’s CSO, explained to me. According to Winkler, it took her and her team two years to get that requirement in place, which has been key to ensuring that sustainability is central to the company’s core business.
Another way a CSO can have an impact is to shape the company’s long-term direction. Frank O’Brien-Bernini, CSO of Owens Corning, told me:
The strategic aspect of a Chief Sustainability Officer is that you have the expectation from the CEO and the CFO to be the voice of not just what's happening next week or next month, but also the view on trends, risks, and opportunities over the mid- to long-term. This influences our business strategies, including the resources we use, the processes we operate and the products we offer. For example, developing a strategic view on whether building codes will be advancing in India, or China, or Brazil, mimicking what's gone on in Western Europe and the United States, helps to frame our opportunities in those regions. Can we influence that trajectory? Where can we lead change, and where should we be responsive?
A CSO’s answers to these questions might not be immediately visible, but are deeply influential.
But even the most empowered CSO will come up against the limits of what his or her position—and his or her company—can do. Scott Griffin is CSO of Greif, the industrial packaging company. He told me that in 2012 the company was looking to build a new manufacturing plant. The company wanted to site the plant in Haiti, bringing with it tens of millions of dollars of capital investment and much-needed jobs. (Greif CEO David Fischer was in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and after seeing people use dirty, heavy jerry cans to transport water initiated the creation of a water backpack. He also sits on the board of a children’s home in Haiti.)
But Greif couldn’t get the numbers to work: There was no way to secure the capital at a low enough rate from lenders, given the poor infrastructure and high levels of corruption in Haiti. “If I could get a discount on capital, then I would pump those discounted capital numbers through the business plan and it would equalize or potentially make Haiti look more attractive," Griffin explained to me. Such a large investment couldn’t be “a philanthropic case. We had to have the business case.” The plant went elsewhere that was considered “less risky,” showing that even a CSO and CEO who want to use their business to promote positive social change can only do so much.