How Does a Company Develop a Chief Sustainability Officer position?

In a breakout session at the State of Green Business Forum, Tod Arbogast of the Avon Company talked about how the company is facing their sustainability challenges, and how they thought about the development of its sustainability division. The lessons learned can help other companies set up their CSR mission, become true sustainability leaders, and get the right people in place to head up those divisions.

Avon is the 125 year old company best known for the women who sell their cosmetics. Their position as a leader in the womens’ products marketplace has created good opportunities for cause marketing around issues like breast cancer. However, beyond cause marketing and supporting educational events like Breast Cancer walks, the company has a number of issues that truly challenge its ongoing business operations, as well as many that don’t, but still may affect its future in a variety of ways. How does a company this size decide its strategies?

To start off, think about the urgency of an environmental and/or social issue as it moves from latent to institutionalized, much like childhood obesity has risen from  a pesky side note to a national epidemic (much thanks to Michelle Obama). The responses that a company takes on that issue also similarly goes from monitoring to compliance to proactive. So to begin crafting a sustainability division, a company first needs to research what those environmental and social issues are and where they are on that scale of monitoring to proactive. In many cases, having a company response like simply monitoring or complying actually makes sense. For instance, childhood obesity is not the primary concern to the IT industry, whereas it is probably the number 1 issue to the fast food industry. This process will inform the creation of a sustainability mission to the organization, which will then, of course inform the human resources that end up making up that division.

So consider a chart, with societal urgency on the y-axis and relevance to the company on the x-axis. If the social urgency is low and the relevance specific to the company is also low, Avon concluded “Responsive risk based action.” If the issue’s urgency is high and the relevance to the company is high, Avon concluded, “Be concerned citizens that are ready to move.” If the societal urgency is high and the relevance to the company low, Avon concluded “Quiet and pragmatic execution”. If both the urgency and the relevance are high, Avon decided on “Strategic leadership”.

Once a company has compiled a list of social/environmental issues that are relevant to their business, it’s time to develop a strategy. With the myriad responses a company must take to the myriad issues that come up, it can often be tempting to trumpet each result. However, and this speaks to the creation and fulfillment of the CSO position, there must be themes. Otherwise, the message of what your company is doing gets lost quickly, and the benefits the company sees will be diminished.

For example, consider some social issues that Avon face. One is the creation of palm oil (one of their ingredients). It is not sustainable because much of the world’s palm oil comes from plantations that are replacing native forests, which deplete habitat for endangered species and release a lot of greenhouse gases. In fact, the practice is one of the bigger contributors to making Indonesia one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Avon has decided to switch to 100% certified sustainable palm oil. The other major issue is creation of their catalogs. Few know that Avon is one of the biggest catalog manufacturers in the world. It’s a waste in many ways.

So if Avon were to talk about palm oil in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and catalogs in terms of solid waste disposal, their message is less succinct than if they find a theme around deforestation. As a result, Avon’s intended purpose in its CSR messaging is to be the company that ends deforestation. It’s simpler to digest, easier to communicate, and is much better as a lead-in to talking about their initiatives.

Avon’s next set of steps was to reach out to forestry non-profits and embark on this mission with full force, and with the weight of their entire company behind them.

Who knew Avon was so concerned with deforestation? Not me. But in a few years, based on this process of planning and setting up a sustainability division, I believe Avon and forests will be words that flow together nicely.

Stay tuned for more news from the State of Green Business Forum. As always, you can follow TriplePundit on twitter for live feeds from the event.


Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill) and Principal of

Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

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