A Disney exec who plays his own corporate villain

January 16, 2013, 3:01 PM UTC
Disney CFO Jay Rasulo

FORTUNE — In 2011, Disney launched a behemoth sea craft — a 4,000-person occupancy vessel called the Disney Dream. She’s been a profitable barge. According to the company’s 2011 annual report, the Dream accounted for 3% of the nearly $1 billion increase in domestic revenue for Disney’s “Parks and Resorts” division.

But the ship’s financial success doesn’t exempt it from an effort, led by Disney’s head of sustainability, to reach zero net greenhouse gas emissions, company-wide. In that sense, the Dream set the company back, increasing its 2011 direct emissions by 15%, compared to the 2006 baseline. Parks and Resorts, like every department, must include greenhouse gas emissions as part of their profit and loss statements.

You would think that such a moneymaker would get a pass from the numbers guy. But at Disney (DIS), the numbers guy is also the green guy. Jay Rasulo, the company’s CFO, oversees Disney’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability initiatives.

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“It’s not easy, it’s quite difficult,” Rasulo says, referring to the effort needed to reach the company’s emissions goal. When department heads are busting tail to make shareholders happy, reporting greenhouse emissions along with financial numbers can seem like just another obstacle. “At the same time,” Rasulo says, “I know for a fact that it has forced actions within Disney.”

Could it fly at other companies?

“Let’s admit it: CFOs haven’t exactly been at the center of the corporate sustainability movement,” UPS (UPS) CFO Kurt Kuehn told the audience at a 2010 International Corporate Citizenship Conference. “But a funny thing has happened to the role of the CFO in recent years,” he continued. “As issues like global recession, company bankruptcies, and credit crises have taken center stage, CFOs have gone from being fancy accountants to co-drivers of corporate strategy. [As] you know, long-term growth can’t be separated from issues of economic, social and environmental policies.”

Keuhn, like Rasulo, is both UPS’s CFO and sustainability advocate. That makes sense for a shipping company — green goals often line up with cost-cutting measures. For example, re-routing trucks to drive more efficient routes burns less fuel, which both saves the company money and reduces its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Companies in the consumer goods industry also tend to have a sustainability plan, according to a 2011 sustainability report by KPMG. And, in total, “more than 3,000 companies worldwide now publish sustainability reports,” according to a 2011 paper from Ernst & Young; that figure includes two-thirds of the Fortune Global 500. But for most companies, publishing these reports requires serious negotiation between the sustainability head and CFO.

There are a couple of benefits to fusing the two roles. Of course, having the CFO involved in sustainability efforts benefits the eco-conscious members of any organization. “It gives higher visibility to the role of sustainability,” says Denise Kleinrichert, a professor at San Francisco State University’s Center for Ethical and Sustainable Business. “It raises the level of importance of sustainability instead of just being seen as, you know, a bunch of tree-huggers.”

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Besides, in spite of the stereotypes, CFOs might be cut out for the job. According to the Ernst & Young report, most sustainability measures require third-party certification, which can feel a lot like a financial audit. That’s right up a CFO’s alley, the report says: “They know how to select the best providers and work with them effectively.”

CFOs can also benefit from taking charge of corporate social responsibility efforts. “The CFO has been strictly confined to looking at the financial picture,” Kleinrichert says, but taking over sustainability can make the finance person more visible to the rest of the company. This has likely worked well for Rasulo, who has been mentioned as a potential successor to CEO Robert Iger.

Giving Disney’s Rasulo the job as sustainability head wasn’t a major strategy change for Disney; it’s just how the company rolls — Disney’s CFO has always been in charge of CSR. Rasulo argues that this may work for Disney more than many companies as its business depends on the wiling participation of informed parents. The media giant’s consumers closely monitor the actions of Disney brands because those names play strongly with their children. “A lot of the value of our brand and company is the authenticity with which we act,” Rasulo says. “We cannot act in a way that is different from what we try to represent.”

Rasulo sees the benefits of his dual job. “I think that the CFO has the unique obligation and opportunity to make the business case for what sometimes, on their face, seem to be very tough decisions,” Rasulo says, “[CFOs] are particularly well-positioned to both make the business case and to proselytize the fact over and over that this is a core value of the company.”