CEOs: Downturn accelerated corporate sustainability adoption

Survey predicts that within a decade, sustainable practices will be core to standard business operating policies.

There's a new report out from Accenture and the United Nations Global Compact, a strategic policy initiative for businesses committed to sustainability practies, that pretty much validates what we have been surmising here at Smart Planet for a while now: it is only a matter of time before sustainability philosophies and processes are just assumed as part of day-to-day business operating procedure. In fact, their data shows this will happen within a decade.

The research underpinning "A New Era of Sustainability: UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study 2010" finds that 93 percent of 766 global CEOs surveyed by Accenture and the UN Global Compact believe that sustainability is critical to the future success of their companies. In fact, 80 percent of them said the global economic downturn accelerated their conviction to embrace sustainability practices. Three years ago, when a similar survey was conducted, that number was only 50 percent.

Some perspective from Mark Foster, group CEO for Accenture Management Consulting and Global Markets:

"CEOs told us they have, by necessity, been on the defensive during the downturn, but that they feel now is the time to get on the front foot in aligning sustainability with core business strategy and execution. Business leaders recognize they are going to have to take a real lead, for example, holding the line on sustainability in their business models; tackling the roadblocks with diligence in tough to crack areas like supply chain and performance management; and working hard to respond to and shape customer demands that turn sustainability into an opportunity for growth and innovation."

Indeed, the research identifies three things hindering executives' appetite for sustainability initiatives:

  1. Complexity in integrating sustainability across multiple business functions (mentioned by 49 percent)
  2. Other strategic priorities
  3. Lack of recognition from financial markets

Personally speaking, it is that last item that annoys me the most. It used to be that sustainability was feared as a possible drag on shareholder value. But that is absolutely, positively not the case, and it has been proven over and over by various business makeover case studies.

So, why have investors been so slow to recognize this? Probably one reason is that executives themselves have been remiss: Only half of them report that sustainability is part of their regular conversations with financial analysts.

Other key findings:

  • 77 percent of the executives said concerns over sustainability led them to take a longer term view of their business
  • 72 percent said education is the most important development issue they face
  • 72 percent said the potential for revenue growth and cost reductions was one of their biggest motivators for a corporate sustainability initiative

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