Section I: Sustainability Is Firmly on Managers’ Agendas

Given the current economic outlook, one might expect most companies to be scaling back on their sustainability investments. We find the opposite to be true. Some 70% of companies that have put sustainability on their management agendas have done so in the past six years, 20% in the past two years. In both our survey data and interviews with senior executives on the management structures that support sustainability, we see continuing strength in the focus of global business on sustainable business practices.

“You would expect people to say, ‘Sorry, sustainability is nice, but it’s only really appropriate for boom times,’” says Nick Robins, head of the Climate Change Centre of Excellence at HSBC, the London-based bank and financial services organization. “Actually, the perception has been the other way around. People are seeing that sustainability is part of that next phase of development, and that it will be disruptive and structural rather than an incremental change here and there.”

Once on the management agenda, sustainability stays there. Seventy percent of organizations say sustainability has a permanent place on the management agenda, and almost none say they plan to reduce their commitments. Moreover, 68% say their organization’s commitment to sustainability has increased in the past year (in 2009 just 25% of companies said this was the case), and an even larger proportion say they plan to increase their commitment to sustainability. (See “Companies Are Upping Their Sustainability Commitments.”)

Companies Are Upping Their Sustainability Commitments

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We see these trends occurring within and across all industries. Resource-intensive industries — energy and utilities, consumer products, commodities, chemicals and automobiles — are leading the way. (See “Resource-Intensive Industries Lead the Way.”) As the global regulatory environment in some resource industries becomes more uncertain, more progressive companies are seeing benefits from having a strong sustainability brand reputation with governments and NGOs.

Respondents from service and technology industries are less likely to say that sustainability is necessary to be competitive. Even so, compared to last year’s survey, service and technology industries today are more likely to see the merits of competing on sustainability.

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1. R. Bowman and M.S. Hopkins, “What’s Your Company’s Sustainability Filter?,” January 18, 2011.


3. We acknowledge, of course, that some businesses in developing countries may have substantively contributed to the environmental degradation that other, more sustainability-oriented businesses must contend with.

4. Worldwatch Institute, “State of the World: Our Urban Future,” 2007.

5. S.L. Hart and S. Sharma, “Engaging Fringe Stakeholders For Competitive Imagination,” Academy of Management Executive 18, no. 1 (Feb. 2004): 15.

6.IDB to Support Expansion of CEMEX Microfinance Program for Low-Income Families,” June 28, 2011.

7. World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, “Redefining the Future of Growth: The New Sustainability Champions,” Geneva, Switzerland, 2011.