How to keep sustainability perceptions in line with performance

Looked at a certain way, responsible and sustainable business is an idea whose time has come. Sustainability functions are now part of the furniture in many businesses. With the science never clearer about the size and urgency of the tasks at hand, more and more companies around the world are integrating environmental and social goals into their corporate strategies. For practitioners, responsible business summits, conferences and workshops continue to proliferate. And with new concepts such as "shared value" gaining momentum, the movement looks to be in robust intellectual health.

But is anyone actually paying attention? GlobeScan has been tracking the evolution of public attitudes around the world towards the role of business in society for over a decade, and the evidence suggests that the public has been left unmoved by the ferment of activity within business around CSR and sustainability.

We measure public expectations -- views on the extent to which businesses should be held responsible for delivering on a range of fourteen 14 social and environmental activities, such as treating their employees fairly, not harming the environment and supporting charities and community organisations. And we measure perceived performance -- how well the public feels a range of 10 industry sectors are doing at being responsible corporate citizens.

When we look at the two side by side over time, it is clear there is a significant gap between expectations and perceived performance. Expectations exploded after corporate scandals in the early part of the last decade (remember Enron, WorldCom, Parmalat, Royal Ahold and the rest?) and have remained at this high level ever since. However, the public's rating of business' performance declined significantly between 2001 and 2009, with a slight uptick in 2011.

expectations vs. performance gap

Next page: Three explanations for the gap between perception and performance