Ask sustainability executives about the most important leadership challenges facing their companies today and they'll probably point to the task of integrating sustainability into core business functions.
Not surprisingly, only one in five companies in a new survey reports having significant levels of integration of sustainability across the business.
The findings, from the "2013 BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey," tell us two things: Sustainability professionals recognize that integrating sustainability across the business is a critical priority; but the vast majority of companies are still some distance from full integration.
No surprises here. These findings, released as the 21st annual BSR conference gets underway this week in San Francisco, go some way in explaining why only a small set of companies are consistently recognized as being true sustainability leaders.
The survey of 711 sustainability executives from BSR member companies captures the views of some of the most committed and experienced professionals in large companies, making it an important barometer of sustainable business advancement.
To better understand the details of sustainability integration, it explored the level of engagement between sustainability functions and other corporate functions.
Results reveal continued high levels of engagement between sustainability functions and the likes of corporate communications:
• 75 percent said they engage regularly with their colleagues in communications, down 2 points from 2011
• 66 percent regularly engage with public affairs, down 2 points
• 64 percent regularly engage with supply chain, no change
• 59 percent regularly engage with the CEO's office, down 1 point
While sustainability has made significant penetration into some important functions, integration seems to stop here. Engagement between sustainability departments and other corporate functions remains low and in some cases has decreased.
• 37 percent said they engage regularly with investor relations, down 1 point from 2011
• 34 percent regularly engage with human resources, down 3 points
• 32 percent regularly engage with R&D, down 9 points
• 28 percent regularly engage with their colleagues in marketing, down 14 points
• 16 percent regularly engage with finance, down 2 points
How can sustainability be truly integrated into the business if only 16 percent of sustainability professionals have regular engagement with corporate finance? Why hasn't this, and other internal engagement metrics, increased in the past two years?
The findings paint a sobering picture of the true state of sustainable business today. Despite the maturity and sophistication of corporate sustainability in the past few decades, and the advent of the chief sustainability officer role, sustainable business remains a work in progress.
There is little doubt that for businesses to foster a better future, sustainability needs to be broadly integrated across all key corporate functions. Chief sustainability officers need to more boldly build relationships with their chief marketing officers, chief talent officers and chief financial officers. These internal stakeholders are as critical as any external audiences, and the evidence suggests not enough has been done to align their interests with sustainability.
If we are to make accelerated progress towards truly sustainable business, the level of internal collaboration must increase significantly. Those in sustainability functions need to be more proactive in finding ways to deepen engagement with their colleagues across the enterprise. CSOs must do a better job of closing the integration gap.
This is a leadership imperative. We need to see more alignment from companies so they can have a greater impact in society and on the planet.
School of fish image by aquapix via Shutterstock.