This is part 1 of 8 from “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point,” a report on the findings of the 2011 Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study and Research Project.

For the third consecutive year, MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group have conducted a survey of managers and executives from companies around the world, asking how they are developing and implementing sustainable business practices. This research report discusses our findings and offers lessons to managers who are either trying to develop a sustainability agenda or wondering whether they should.

More than 4,000 managers from 113 countries responded to our survey this year; we focused on the nearly 3,000 executives from the commercial sector for this report. According to those respondents, 70% of companies have placed sustainability permanently on their management agendas; many companies have placed it on their agendas in the past six years. (See “The Sustainability Movement Nears a Tipping Point.”) Two-thirds of our respondents said that sustainability was necessary to being competitive in today’s marketplace, up from 55% in our 2010 survey. (See “Most Managers Believe a Sustainability Strategy Is a Competitive Necessity.”) Moreover, despite a lackluster economy, many companies are increasing their commitments to sustainability initiatives, the opposite of what one would expect if sustainability were simply a luxury afforded by good times.

The Sustainability Movement Nears a Tipping Point

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This rosy picture must be balanced against another set of data. While sustainability has made it onto many management agendas, responses indicate it ranks just eighth in importance among other agenda items. Meanwhile, economic growth continues to deplete the planet’s stocks of natural capital, despite the efforts of many companies to minimize their impacts through activities such as decreasing their carbon footprints and cultivating closed-loop production systems.

Most Managers Believe a Sustainability Strategy Is a Competitive Necessity

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In spite of this mixed story, almost a third of respondents say that their sustainability activities are contributing to their profitability. Taken together, the data suggest that the sustainability movement is nearing a tipping point, the point at which a substantial portion of companies are not only seeing the need for sustainable business practices but are also deriving financial benefits from these activities.

In this year’s report, we focus on organizations that say their sustainability activities are contributing to their profits — a group that we call “Harvesters.” Many Harvesters are not merely implementing individual initiatives such as lowering carbon emissions, reducing energy consumption or investing in clean technologies. They also are changing their operating frameworks and strategies.

Embracers vs. Harvesters

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In last year’s report, “Sustainability: The Embracers Seize Advantage,” we identified a group of “Embracer” companies — those that see sustainability as necessary to be competitive, have made the business case and have put sustainability permanently on the management agenda. Embracers are three times more likely to be Harvesters than are other companies. (See “Embracers vs. Harvesters.”)

In this report, we explain why the move toward sustainability is nearing a tipping point; examine what sets Harvesters apart from other companies; and, discuss three key lessons managers can learn from Harvesters.