Sustainability Leadership in 2023: Catalysts, Challenges, and Champions

Oct 19, 2023 | Blog

Sustainability leadership roles in 2023 have evolved dramatically – from reputation management and story telling to shaping company wide strategy – there is perhaps no other title as multi-faceted. And in this defining decade for global decarbonisation, the sustainability leader is at the forefront. 


The Changing Role of the CSO

The future of the Chief Sustainability Officer report published by Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance asked respondents how they would categorise, in priority order, the role of their CSO or equivalent. The above shows the results. It is clear that CSOs find themselves wearing multiple hats – from strategist and communicator to regulator, innovation driver, and risk manager. But what is also evident is that being a sustainability leader is no longer just about meeting compliance and appeasing stakeholders. 

In 2023 sustainability leaders are expected to execute initiatives with extreme strategic focus, defining their mission articulately and coherently in order to inspire both internal and external stakeholders whilst initiating accountability. Not only this, but they are also encouraged to don the ‘thought leadership’ role in organisations, inspiring change through their internal passion and commitment to the planet; participating in interviews, events, conferences and sometimes taking seats on boards, impacting industry legislation. 

Whilst navigating this complex set of challenges, they must also keep one unlikely coupling at the forefront of their mind – sustainability and profitability. Making sure their initiatives are not only linked to climate related goals, but also balanced by ROI or business related metrics. This tight-rope balance causes operational tension and can also spark greenwashing claims… and whose job is it to make sure equilibrium is maintained? You guessed it. 

Cause and Affect

But what’s been the catalyst for the evolution of the role? The shift in stakeholder behaviours has played a significant part, with 63% of consumers taking steps to modify their lifestyle, including adopting greener buying habits and 89% of investors considering ESG issues in some form as part of their investment approach.

In parallel to this are dynamic changes in ESG and GHG reporting, prompted by the demand for standardisation and authentication. New regulations around ESG and GHG reporting continue to create immense impact in the realm of sustainability leadership in 2023. For the first time in history, businesses around the world are being asked to measure their effect on the environment, and report on it. In the EU we see The Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) and The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) emerging. Whilst in the United States, the SEC is actively preparing to enact revisions to Regulation S-K and S-X. Additionally, on a state level, the adoption of specific bills is underway, with the most recent example being SB 253, which has a significant impact on businesses operating in California.

Key Characteristics of Sustainability Leaders in 2023

To match the breadth of skills needed to be a sustainability leader, there are also a fair few characteristics associated with the role.

  • They are adaptive leaders who champion personal growth and embrace uncertainty.
  • They rely on influence rather than authority, inspiring others to follow through personal integrity.
  • They maintain a long-term perspective, understanding the complexity of sustainability initiatives and their long-lasting impact.
  • They are disruptors, committed to disrupting the status quo, through challenging conventional business practices, building unlikely alliances and embracing ventures beyond their organisational boundaries.

Some sustainability leaders that we admire who possess some, if not all, of these characteristics are…


Will Jackson-Moore, Global Sustainability leader, PWC

Comment on NYC climate action weeks theme ‘we can, we will’: “The people in this room, they will. It’s the people who aren’t in the room which is the challenge, because I say there are some solutions, and we need to drive change. I think we are the catalyst to change. We’re the lucky ones who come to hear the really high-quality speakers, but we’ve got to go and disseminate that and drive action in, not just our work environment, I think the whole kind of ecosystem that we live in.”

Gihan Hyde, CEO and Founder, CommUnique

“We are seen as a nice to have function and not a MUST have function. This needs to change, and I am doing so by showcasing to the CEOs, CFOs, and other leaders whom I talk to every day as their peers that communication is as important as strategy and budget.”

Gavin Starks, CEO and Founder, Icebreaker One

“We’re out of time. We need to act now. We have as many of the pieces as I think can reasonably exist to give confidence to what needs to happen next. There is a ‘raise the tide’ moment that, done well, could unlock tens of billions in value, for everyone. If we can go far, together.”

The Champion of Sustainable Business Practices

In the rapidly evolving economic landscape, sustainability has emerged as a fundamental aspect of business strategy. No longer a side note in corporate agendas, sustainability has become a central force shaping modern businesses. Its role is multifaceted and vital for various reasons including ensuring environmental responsibility, regulatory compliance, cross-functional collaboration, monitoring and reporting.

Sustainability leaders are the catalysts for change within businesses, ensuring that sustainable practices are not just theoretical concepts but concrete, actionable strategies. Their role in driving positive change within organisations encompasses several key aspects:

  • Visionary Leadership: Sustainability leaders set a clear vision for the integration of ecological practices. They inspire employees and stakeholders with a compelling narrative of why sustainability is essential for the business and society.
  • Change Management: They implement change management strategies to transition the organisation towards decarbonisation seamlessly.
  • Cross-functional Collaboration: Sustainability leaders bridge departments, encouraging collaboration among various teams. Sustainability is not the responsibility of a single department; it’s a collective effort. Leaders facilitate this collaboration to ensure all aspects of the business work toward a common climate focused goal.
  • Monitoring and Reporting: They establish systems to track and report progress on sustainability goals. Transparency and accountability are crucial in demonstrating the organisation’s commitment to sustainability to both internal and external stakeholders.

Some banks with sustainability practices we think are worth shouting about:

BNP Paribas: In response to the climate crisis, BNP Paribas, the largest bank in the European Union, is committed to redirecting its funding toward green initiatives. The goal is to attain a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The Group’s target is to achieve 40 billion euros in credit exposure for low-carbon, primarily renewable, energy production by 2030. Learn more.

Triodos Bank: Triodos Bank’s mission is to help create a society that protects and promotes quality of life and human dignity for all. Since 1980, their sustainable financial products have enabled individuals and organisations to use their money in ways that benefit people and the environment. Learn more.

Challenges and Opportunities

Whilst the call to action to embrace decarbonisation has reached many people, the sustainability champion of 2023 still has work to do in spreading awareness, climate literacy and the benefits of sustainable development. 

To continue to champion their initiatives, collaborations and partnerships need to be made; but in many cases climate change remains to be a collective action problem. It is only through communication of the issue and decentralisation that we can create comradery in the face of this global challenge. Parallel to this, there is also still a very real need for investment into sustainable technology and initiatives. The gravitas of the work that still needs to be done is hindered by the lack of funds available for countries, businesses and individuals to enable their journeys to decarbonisation.

But whilst there are many challenges for green champions, there are also boundless opportunities. If we view sustainability leadership as a long-term goal, and invest in it from every facet of business – from educating employees, to providing waste paper bins and devaluing disposable materials, the gains to be made for our environment and the global economy is unparalleled. The sustainability leaders of 2023 have a long way to go, and the job certainly isn’t an easy one, but with the right support and amplification, they’re going to make some big changes – we’re sure of it. 

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About Connect Earth:

Founded in 2021, Connect Earth is a London-based environmental data company that democratises easy access to sustainability data. With its carbon tracking API technology, Connect Earth is on a mission to empower consumers and SMEs to make sustainable choices and bridge the gap between intent, knowledge and action. Connect Earth supports financial institutions in offering their customers transparent insight into the climate impact of their spending.


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