An Inside Look at How CEOs View Sustainability

An Inside Look at How CEOs View Sustainability

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Philippe Put

Many business leaders have approached us giving markedly different assessments of the opportunities they see and the challenges they face since last year's CEO study on sustainability by the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and Accenture.

It is clear that there is no unified view of sustainability, let alone a single snapshot of progress. There are real differences in attitudes, approaches and obstacles from sector to sector. What is clear, however, is that CEOs believe environmental, social and governance issues are becoming increasingly material to business performance and future success, and a growing number of companies are looking at the growth and innovation opportunity it might promise.

Today, Georg Kell, UNGC executive director, joins me and Sander van 't Noordende, Accenture's group chief executive of management consulting, as we unveil seven industry deep-dive studies based on the most comprehensive CEO survey on sustainability in business to date, spanning 766 CEOs across the globe.

We are launching these studies on Sustainability 24, a global online experience which brings together hundreds of leaders from the private and public sectors for a series of debates and discussions on business and sustainable development.

There's no surprise that, at this relatively early stage for more commercially driven sustainability at scale, most industries see the main opportunity in enhanced trust, brand and reputation. Fully 85 percent of banking CEOs, and 75 percent of those in consumer goods, report that enhanced brand, trust and reputation will be an important opportunity presented by sustainability over the next five years.

Significantly, we are also beginning to see sustainability issues reshaping demand across industries, leading CEOs to perceive their response to these challenges as a core part of their growth and innovation agenda. Seventy-nine percent of consumer goods CEOs, for example, see the consumer as a primary stakeholder in driving their action on sustainability: Consumer electronics companies Philips and Siemens now view a significant proportion of their revenues driven by products and services which help consumers address their own environmental impact.

Similarly, 67 percent of automotive CEOs, and 61 percent of those in banking, report an important role for the consumer in shaping their response to sustainability challenges: For the automotive sector, consumer demand for new mobility solutions will provide new waves of growth, and banks' response to sustainability challenges will play an integral role in rebuilding public trust in business.

Our industry analysis suggests that some sectors may be ahead of the pack when it comes to integrating sustainability into core business. Eighty percent of utilities CEOs, for example, report their company has embedded metrics to track sustainability performance, ahead of the cross-industry average of 64 percent. Similarly, 83 percent of CEOs in the energy sector and 81 percent of those in infrastructure say their company measures both positive and negative impacts of their activities on sustainability outcomes, a finding which suggests sustainability performance management capabilities are beginning to take root in leading industries.

Perhaps most interesting is the clear performance gap that has opened up between ambition and execution in the integration of sustainability. For example, while many CEOs recognize that a true commercially driven approach to sustainability can only be achieved by instilling the right knowledge, skills, attitudes and behavior at every level of the organization, companies are not meeting their ambition with practical action. Ninety-five percent of automotive executives believe that companies should invest in enhanced training of managers to integrate sustainability into strategy and operations, but just 52 percent report that their company already does so.

What can we conclude from this rich seam of data? A growing number of CEOs indicate that sustainability is becoming part of their innovation and growth agenda.

And while most CEOs are placing sustainability at the core of their strategies, many are struggling with execution. As we demonstrate today with the participants in Sustainability 24, cross-industry conversations are more common in sustainability than in most other business areas, and we believe that executives in every sector can learn from others as they turn ambition into action on the journey to a new era of sustainability.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Philippe Put.