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Jul 19, 2023

Chief Sustainability Officers: Symbolic or Substantial?

(Highest Honors Thesis under the direction of Jeffrey Mittelstadt)

Businesses have begun to realize the environmental, social, and economic benefits that they can unleash by integrating sustainability into business strategy. As a result, firms have elevated sustainability responsibilities to senior leadership with the introduction of the chief sustainability officer (CSO). However, many companies are still hesitant to adopt a CSO; critics believe that the decision is symbolic rather than substantive. Further, my research seeks to understand the symbolic vs. substantial impact of CSO equivalents at large companies. I use a mixed methods design, employing statistical and qualitative analyses to understand the relationship between CSO equivalent presence and climate-related performance metrics. My findings reveal that CSO presence is associated with target setting and temperature alignment, and CSO prior relevant experience is the most significant driver of variation among companies with a CSO. Given my findings, along with evidence from prior literature, I argue that companies can affect the symbolic vs. substantial impact of their CSO by following a strategic decision-making process that maximizes cross functional collaboration.

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