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UK firms turning to Chief Sustainability Officers as board level hires accelerate

  • New global survey by PwC shows UK among leading countries for putting sustainability at the heart of the boardroom

  • With 37% of surveyed firms having a CSO, the UK is behind only France, the US and India

  • CSO appointments shown to have a marked effect on a company’s ESG scores

There is growing demand in UK boardrooms for Chief Sustainability Officers with more than one in three large businesses surveyed by PwC having filled such a role, however the country trails France, the US and India in establishing these positions.

With a clear mandate from investors, employees, and other stakeholders for sustainable transformation, the latest Chief Sustainability Officer study by PwC and Strategy& found that 37% of companies surveyed in the UK have appointed a CSO at first or second management level – ahead of the European average of 35%.

However, UK businesses could be moving quicker - globally, 2021 saw more CSO appointments than the years 2016-20 combined. 

In an international comparison, France (57%), the USA (47%) and India (44%) lead the way, with Germany (35%) just behind the UK. 

There has been a sharp increase in the number of appointments in recent years, with more than one-third of the total global CSO appointments coming in the last two years. 

Around half of the UK appointments have been internal hires, in line with the global trend, where 59% have been internal hires. Around one in five CSOs came to the role with a professional business and sustainability background.

In the UK, a further 56% of surveyed businesses have in post a member of staff whose remit includes sustainability. An employee in such a “CSO Light” role is someone who is positioned below the top two management levels or has a narrower scope, for example in relation to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The study also found that the requirements for roles focused on sustainability have also changed significantly in recent years. Such positions were once a more of a subordinate role with topics such as CSR being addressed primarily through communications. In contrast, today's Chief Sustainability Officers have a much more complex role. The modern CSO requires a deep understanding of all parts of the business. They need to be able to build alliances and networks, because they are in contact with almost every part of the organisation. The CSO must be able to understand the interconnectedness of all ESG issues, deal with their complexities and join the dots.

Note: Green denotes CSO, grey ‘CSO Light’, and red, no CSO

The introduction of a CSO is also shown to have a marked effect on a company’s ESG scores. The study found that globally, 98% of the companies rated with top grades (A+ to A-) in the Refinitiv/Bloomberg sustainability ranking had their own CSO or ‘CSO light’. By contrast, 52% of the ESG laggards (grade D+ to D-) had no CSO at all.

Carl Sizer, ESG Leader at PwC UK, commented:

“Sustainability has long passed the point of being a ‘nice to have’ and its importance as a strategic priority for business is evident in the growing number of Chief Sustainability Officers being appointed at the UK’s biggest companies.

“Sustainable transformation is critical in combatting climate change, and so it is encouraging to see that more than 90% of UK businesses surveyed have appointed someone with scope for influencing how that is achieved.

“Having a CSO on the board sends a strong signal to investors, customers and employees that sustainability is a key consideration in both strategic and operational planning.”

The full results of the Chief Sustainability Officer study are available here.

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