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The growing role of chief information officers in sustainability

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

As companies prioritize sustainability, they are integrating ESG issues into their business strategies, with roles like CIOs becoming increasingly crucial in managing and optimizing ESG data through advanced technologies and strategic alignment with corporate goals

As companies place more emphasis on sustainability, it’s become critical for them to weave environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into their business practices and communication. This is not only to comply with regulatory requirements but also to fulfill the demands of various stakeholders such as investors, customers, and employees.

Indeed, ESG reporting is increasingly being used as a demonstration of a firm’s dedication to sustainable practices and as a strategic instrument that harmonizes and illustrates the company’s overarching goals for the future.

The Thomson Reuters Institute has covered extensively the essential roles of chief legal officers and chief financial officers in sustainability. At the same time, chief information officers (CIOs) are emerging as key players as well. And this is happening as advanced technology becomes more critical to achieve efficiencies in the sustainability data journeys and as generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) emerges as a tool to automate and increase accuracy of ESG data.

Jeff Wong, EY’s Global Chief Innovation Officer, says that the demand for “consistent technology systems to support large data sets — from reporting mechanisms and the corresponding workflow of the data journey from the raw to finished state” is growing every day. CIOs cannot work in silos, however.

Guidance to CIOs to get started

A crucial first step for CIOs in approaching how they can add value to the corporate sustainability strategy is to ensure there is alignment of sustainability efforts with the organization’s strategic business goals. This involves an in-depth evaluation of the ways in which ESG measures can spur innovation, enhance risk management, and increase operational effectiveness, thereby bolstering the company’s competitive edge.

That means it is essential for CIOs to collaborate with their peers, especially CFOs, chief sustainability officers (CSOs), and chief human resources officers. These executives are crucial in gathering and incorporating data related to ESG efforts. And in those situations in which GenAI is involved, Wong advises CSOs and CIOs, along with the heads of technology and IT, to work in partnership to make sure the data is correct and that there’s a good understanding of where the data came from. He also suggests they work to understand the expenses associated with using and training large language models and the additional cost of power generation such data gathering commands.

CIOs must learn about the foundational elements of ESG and teach key members of the IT team as well. In fact, many teams across the organization must understand the language of sustainability. This knowledge enables teams to effectively contribute to the company’s ESG efforts and ensures consistency in reporting and communication by using the same language.

generative AI
Jeff Wong, Global Chief Innovation Officer at EY

“The emergence of sustainability reporting and data security as strategic concerns have made CIOs strategic partners within the C-suite… [and] they are being asked to come up with more creative, newer solutions that have not been implemented yet.”

Usually, CIOs and their teams will find themselves having to learn while executing. To act effectively, they should start with the energy footprint of the IT organization, identifying achievable energy usage reductions and reviewing or creating processes for critical ESG data sets.

      • Start with IT’s ESG impact reporting — For many CIOs, they can make their mark on their company’s enterprise ESG strategy by first helping to calculate the energy footprint of the IT organization itself, especially if the company is just getting started in this area. CIOs need to set an example with support for sustainable practices within the IT function, including establishing energy-efficient data centers, eco-friendly hardware procurement, and environmentally conscious IT services.
      • Document and evaluate data collection process and technology tools — As the CIOs move through the journey of assessing and reducing the environmental footprint of the IT organization, they should outline and evaluate the current collection processes for high-priority data sets with IT team members and other peer corporate professionals.
      • Create an ESG roadmap within the IT function — As CIOs learn, they should formulate a draft roadmap of key sustainability data sets that is aligned with the broader IT strategy. This roadmap needs to address short-term needs while also keeping long-term goals in mind. CIOs must consistently keep the long-term view in mind, especially for those regulatory rules that require auditability.

Other CIO duties include conducting consistent reviews and upgrading technology as needed, as well as designing sustainable data architectures. These data architectures ought to be constructed with the dual aim of integrating with companies’ ESG reporting mechanisms and bolstering systems that advance sustainability efforts. By doing so, the data architecture fulfills the twofold function of adhering to compliance standards and promoting the betterment of sustainability measures.

Consistently evaluating for improvements should be done beyond one-year periods as CIOs must continuously evaluate the requirements for data and analytics processes and solutions to ensure the successful implementation to achieve best performance and ongoing efficiencies.

CIO role evolving to drive sustainability and strategic innovation

The role of CIOs will progressively increase in importance as technology solutions improve to meet ever-expanding regulatory requirements and investor expectations. And CIOs that get involved with their company sustainability strategies sooner rather than later may have a leg-up on the competition.

More broadly, the role of the CIO in the realm of sustainability is part of a larger trend as the role transitions from just a service function to making sure the computers stay running and software is deployed efficiently.

“The emergence of sustainability reporting and data security as strategic concerns have made CIOs strategic partners within the C-suite, helping to deliver on [sustainability] reporting and the expansion of new products that can be offered by companies,” Wong explains. “They are being asked to come up with more creative, newer solutions that have not been implemented yet.”

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