The New Era of Sustainability Calls for CEO Action, not Talk

The New Era of Sustainability Calls for CEO Action, not Talk

The writing is on the wall for corporate sustainability efforts -- both literally and figuratively. In the largest survey of CEOs on sustainability issues, 81 percent of global chief executives say their company's green strategies are fully enmeshed in operations, and that the time to take action is now.

The study, conducted by Accenture in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact, polled 766 CEOs from a number of industries and based all over the world. The findings suggest that the corporate world is entering into an "Era of Sustainability" -- 93 percent of responding CEOs said that sustainability issues will be critical to their firms' successes in the next ten years.

In releasing the survey results, which are tied to the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Global Compact, Accenture found three driving forces for corporate sustainability efforts: Brand, trust and reputation. These three components were ranked as the biggest motivating factor by 72 percent of respondents, followed by potential cost reductions and revenue increases, personal motivation, customer demand, and employee engagement. The figure below shows the full rankings. 

CEO Survey Figure 1

While pressure from governments and investors rank lowest on the list of motivating factors, the survey responses indicate three trends that are shaping corporate sustainability efforts:

1. The consumer is (or will be) king;
2. Importance of technology and innovation;
3. Collaboration is critical.

The latest survey follows on a similar study conducted in 2007, and finds significant growth in acceptance of sustainability's importance in the corporate world. Nearly all -- 96 percent -- of the responding CEOs said that sustainability should be "fully embedded into the strategy and operations of a company," up from 72 percent just three years ago. Similar growth occurred in how CEOs perceive the roles of boards and subsidiaries in addressing sustainability. The chart below has the full comparisons from the previous survey. 

CEO Survey Fig 2

As sustainability issues become core to corporate operations, the report based on the survey's findings identifies five areas where companies will need to take concentrated action to grow the green economy:

1. Actively shaping consumer and customer awareness, attitudes and needs.
2. Generating new knowledge, skills and mindsets for sustainable development.
3. Leading the creation of an investment environment more favorable to sustainable business.
4. Embedding new concepts of value and performance at the organizational and individual levels.
5. Creating a clearer and more positive regulatory environment for sustainability.

The report was released in tandem with a two-day summit taking place this week in New York City; although the Global Compact itself is based on 10 principles addressing human rights, labor standards and corruption as well as environmental issues, the upcoming summit is geared toward building a new era of sustainability leaders. 

The full report from the survey conducted by Accenture and the U.N. Global Compact is available for download from GreenBiz.com; for more information on the research and the summit, visit Accenture's website for the research.