Chief sustainability officers (CSOs) are popping up in corporate boardrooms worldwide as the importance of sustainability grows clearer to consumers, investors and businesses.

CSOs can be in charge of many aspects of sustainability, including risk management, safety, emission-reduction strategies, environmental impacts, community support, worker welfare, financial sustainability and more. 

Sometimes, they’re also involved in marketing and communicating a company’s sustainability progress to the public.

“I’m the chief storytelling officer lots of times. I work with [the team] to capture the stories of our employees that are doing great things,” Josh Raglin, CSO at Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), told FreightWaves. 

The birthplace of the CSO

NS was one of the first in the transportation industry to appoint a CSO in 2007, Raglin said. He took over the role in 2020 after about 24 years at the company. Raglin said CSOs typically come from the legal or finance department, so his background in wildlife, fisheries and ecology sets him apart; he naturally looks at rail through more of a “sustainability lens.”

Øistein Jensen, CSO at Bergen, Norway-based chemical storage and ocean transportation provider Odfjell SE, was chief of staff before the company replaced that position with the CSO in 2020. With experience in corporate services as chief of staff, Jensen is now in charge of sustainability, compliance and global risk management. He said he has often seen younger people with a passion for sustainability appointed as CSOs after working their way up from communications-related roles. 

Unity and collective action

“I’m a department of one, but I’m a team of 19,000 people,” Raglin said. When sustainability is left to a part-time employee or someone within one department, he said, silos result. Raglin uses sustainability workshops and other measures to empower employees to weave sustainability into their departments and throughout the entire organization.

This idea of collective action on sustainability throughout a company is not unique to Norfolk Southern. Jensen said sustainability should be an integrated part of every business, and Odfjell considers the sustainability impacts of every high-level decision it makes.

“When you have a shared long-term vision, it allows you to make investments in some of these sustainability projects that maybe have less tangible paybacks in the immediate term but are certainly valuable to customers and to business partners all along the supply chain,” John Tyson, CSO at Tyson Foods, said in a fireside chat during FreightWaves’ Global Supply Chain Week.

Driving sustainability goals and progress

Jensen said having a sustainability officer at the executive level sends internal and external signals about the company’s priorities. He explained Odfjell’s recently issued sustainability bonds, which are funds that have to be used for something sustainability-related, such as safety, diversity, carbon emissions or social responsibility.

Raglin’s first action as CSO at NS was relaunching the Corporate Sustainability Advisory Council and committing to setting emission-reduction targets, which are expected to be validated by the Science Based Targets initiative in the next few months. The company also recently closed a $500 million green bond offering.

“It’s really about driving sustainability throughout our organization and working with various departments to lessen our environmental impact,” Raglin said. 

Raglin communicates with customers about how much money and emissions can be saved by switching certain lanes from truck to rail. He also works with the marketing team to share the company’s environmental, social and governance journey.

J.B. Hunt Transportation Services (NASDAQ: JBHT) reduced its carbon emissions by 3.4 million metric tons in 2020 by shifting loads to intermodal, Craig Harper, CSO and executive vice president at J.B. Hunt, said in a fireside chat during FreightWaves’ Net-Zero Carbon Summit. Harper was appointed as J.B. Hunt’s first CSO in late 2020. He said the company also eliminated 4.3 million empty truck miles by increasing its reliance on the J.B. Hunt 360 digital freight platform. Logistics players are under pressure on multiple fronts to slash their carbon footprints, Harper said.

Sustainability officers gaining C-suite roles

“The C-suite is now engaging the whole workforce to drive sustainability efforts, which leads to a much broader impact. Executives can track incremental projects without it being a monstrous task. The results can be shared across businesses and industries, empowering them to achieve without changing loftier goals,” Proxima Group Consultant Shane Rooney told FreightWaves. Proxima is a global procurement consultancy.

Rooney said CSOs are being added to the list of C-suite executives as corporations move to address climate change through consumer incentives and empowering employees to broaden their perspectives. Raglin, Jensen and Rooney mentioned the importance of including employees at all levels in sustainability conversations and encouraging them to incorporate considerations of sustainability in decision-making in every department.

Sustainability should not be treated as the “icing on the cake,” Jensen said.

Rooney said something much more concrete is underway than has been the case in the past: “Corporate America is moving away from the greenwashing and heading toward real action.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

Related Stories:

Norfolk Southern closes $500 million green bond offering

NZCS keynote: Transport must double down on intermodal use

FreightWaves LIVE recap: Sustainability shapes shipper strategies

GSCW chat recap: John Tyson on sustainable supply chain management