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A Complete Guide: What is a Chief Sustainability Officer?

Measuring environmental impacts has become the number one priority for many businesses. In fact, sustainability is becoming a key element in most business plans today. Companies need compatible sustainability leaders who can guide them to succeed in making a profit while reducing their footprints. The task is challenging but forever rewarding. What is a chief sustainability officer and how can they help organizations reduce environmental impacts while maintaining profit?

What is a Chief Sustainability Officer?

A chief sustainability offer (CSO) oversees the environmental impact of a company or organization. They are the go-to person to assess current impacts and raise future sustainable practices accordingly. Moreover, they must ensure a business is meeting government sustainability standards.

A CSO must be aware of changes in legislation and should lead company policy changes accordingly. They typically report to the CEO and work together with chief financial officers to ensure business finances are properly conducted. A CSO is passionate about the environment and has a genuine interest in climate change.

Job Description and Skills of a CSO

A chief sustainability officer’s job duties may vary from company to company. The main objective remains the same: ensure the organization is as sustainable as possible. In doing so, a CSO might:

  • Develop strategies that address energy use, resource conservation, pollution reduction, building design, transportation, education, waste elimination, and recycling
  • Deliver digital solutions that respond to customer needs
  • Research sustainability methods
  • Oversee volunteers and staff working on achieving sustainability goals
  • Evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of sustainability programs
  • Conduct risk assessments
  • Assist in formulating sustainability marketing campaigns and strategies
  • Educate and train employees on sustainability
  • Write grant proposals and other documents to pursue funding for initiatives
  • Monitor budgets

In completing those tasks, a CSO should be skilled in the following:

  • Creative thinking
  • Research abilities
  • Leadership abilities
  • Organizational skills
  • Critical thinking abilities
  • Policy engagement
  • Effective communication skills
  • Technology knowledge
  • Collaborative skills
  • Strategic planning and implementation
  • Life cycle assessment skills

Sustainability Strategies and Opportunities for Industries

Our actions have environmental consequences. Companies need to strategize and learn about opportunities that make positive environmental impacts. Learning about materials, energy sources, sustainable production, and consumption help organizations create and execute effective business models aligned with healthy sustainable practices.

Further, having a collective mindset promotes an overall healthier environment.

The Future of Sustainability: A Circular Economy

A CSO must be informed of various sustainability measures. A circular economy is one of them. For a long time, humans have followed a linear approach to waste. We take, we make, and we dispose. Many times, each time a new phone comes out, we ditch the old one. The same with washing machines and even vehicles. This method of disposing of isn’t sustainable.

The circular economy asks an important question: how can our waste build capital rather than reduce it? The circular economy helps reduce waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate substances. The same way the Internation Space Station reuses waste in space can be applied here on Earth.
A chief sustainable officer should have a forward-thinking mentality when it comes to reusing waste—and a circular economy is a perfect way of doing so.

Measuring Environmental Impacts

Measuring environmental impacts from the planning, decision-making, and design phases are critical. That’s where life cycle assessments can make impactful changes. Life cycle assessments measure the impacts of products and processes so that you can help business leaders, policymakers, and stakeholders make informed decisions regarding sustainability. From electronic devices to buildings and infrastructure, assessing processes and products early on can drastically reduce costs and environmental impacts.

Chief sustainability officers should ensure their team is trained in assessing products and processes at every level of production. That way, it becomes easier to meet sustainability standards.

How to Become a CSO

Becoming a CSO is a long and challenging process. If you’re passionate about making a change and a cleaner planet, the journey will surely be worth it. Some steps to becoming a successful CSO include:


An undergraduate degree is a great start to becoming a CSO. Some majors that lead in that direction are:

  • Business administration or management
  • Environmental engineering
  • Environmental science
  • Finance
  • International Business
  • Public administration
  • Social sciences

Further, a graduate degree in sustainability could increase your chances of becoming a CSO.

Work in a suitability role

Focusing on obtaining job roles in sustainability can boost your career goal of becoming a chief sustainability officer. Some job positions in sustainability include sustainability coordinator environmental consultant, research scientist, and grant writer. You can work in the private sector or public institutions like universities or the government.

Hone leadership abilities

Having leadership skills is essential as a CSO. All C-level positions require leadership abilities to communicate effectively with stakeholders and team members. Additionally, you must collaborate well with internal finance departments and with government officials to stay ahead of upcoming changes in legislature. Surely, at one point or another, you will need to persuade stakeholders to take risks and make sacrifices to obtain sustainability goals. This requires strategic persuasion abilities.

Chief Sustainability Officer Certificate Program at MIT Professional Education

MIT Professional Education offers an all-encompassing, 360° learning experience in our Blended Professional Certificate: Chief Sustainability Officer program. After completing the course, you will:

  • Understand what sustainability is, its root causes and how to measure it through different techniques
  • Formulate cogent and rigorous positions and arguments to make sustainability decisions within your organization
  • Elaborate pragmatic strategies that can be employed across different sectors to bolster sustainability
  • Learn how to implement life-cycle sustainability assessments (LCAs) to identify and develop new methods for boosting sustainability
  • Understand the meaning and evolution of a circular economy and the roles of material science, economic and institutional structures, and technology
  • Acquire the required leadership skills to drive and implement the sustainability agenda in your company

You will receive certificates in:

  • Leadership and Innovation
  • Sustainability: Strategy and Opportunities for Industry
  • Circular Economy
  • Sustainable Infrastructure: Planning and Operations
  • Life Cycle Assessment

You will have the opportunity to attend masterclasses at the MIT campus where you will network with like-minded peers and build your professional portfolio. Take the leap in your career with our 12-month, online and in-person blended Chief Sustainability Officer program, or find out more about our other programs at MIT Professional Education

Clara Piloto
Director of Global Programs, Director of Digital Plus Programs
MIT Professional Education
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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