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US Demand for CSOs Grew 228% in 10 Years, But Diversity Remains a Challenge

The good news: According to a new report from the Weinreb Group, hiring of Chief Sustainability Officers surged in 2020 in the US, and women now account for 54% of CSO positions. The not-so-good news: The field remains overwhelmingly white.

The Weinreb Group — a boutique executive-search firm specializing in the recruitment of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs), as well as other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) leaders — today released a report on the skyrocketing growth of the CSO position in the US. It also digs into the work of the country’s 95 most influential CSOs — who are helping shape the largest US corporations’ work to address everything from climate change and resource scarcity 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 in the US has soared from just 29 in 2011 to 95 today; and they’re shaping how their corporations not only address their environmental impacts, but also 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 at publicly traded US 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, 31 companies hired their first CSO. The field has grown by more than 228 percent in 10 years.

  • 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.

  • More women; little racial diversity: The percentage of women in CSO roles has almost doubled, with women now accounting for 54 percent of CSO positions. However, despite the movement toward gender balance and the expanded focus on social justice, the CSO role remains overwhelmingly white.

  • The CSO role is expanding — and shifting: The data find that many companies are now paying more attention to the ‘S’ in the ESG equation, rather than just the ‘E,’ and the broadening of CSOs’ role reflects that. Still, while gender parity in the traditional sense is starting to be addressed, there is growing recognition that truly inclusive workplaces — and a truly inclusive, sustainable society — must foster both racial equity and the acceptance of gender as a spectrum. This data — combined with a recent WeSpire survey that found a significant drop in corporate DEI programs in 2020, despite a groundswell in both corporate commitments and employee interest around related issues — confirms that the business world still has work to do to make good on their DEI commitments.

Read the full Weinreb Group report here.