Sustainability Progress Is Stalled at Most Companies

Less than one-third of U.S. employees surveyed reported that their organizations engage in practices that embed sustainability goals in business models and employee roles.

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While many companies talk the talk of sustainability, claiming to be integrating environmental and societal concerns into their business models, far fewer walk the walk: Managers typically treat sustainability as someone else’s problem and relegate it to a department or even a single individual.1 On the other hand, companies that have been successful in transforming their business models to be more sustainable have embedded sustainability into their corporate DNA. This means that they have endowed their employees with a sense of sustainable ownership, spurring them to engage in more sustainability-supporting behaviors. When every employee integrates environmental and social concerns into every business decision, sustainability progress is accelerated — an aspirational goal for all companies.

To shed light on the state of play in embedding sustainability and identify key bottlenecks, the Center for Sustainable Business at the University of Pittsburgh collaborated with The Harris Poll to conduct a survey of U.S. employees. We wanted to find out whether their employers were taking measures that our earlier research had identified as important to prompting employees to conduct business through a sustainability lens. Our survey drew responses from 1,056 employees, representative of the U.S. employee base. We defined sustainability for the respondents as “integrating environmental and societal concerns into business decisions and actions.”

We asked respondents to rate their level of agreement with a series of 19 statements about the status quo, such as “My company has a clear business case for improving our sustainability performance,” on a 4-point Likert scale (from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”). We also presented respondents with a series of 12 issues that could pose challenges to sustainability progress, such as “Sustainability is not built into our business strategy,” and asked them to rate the extent to which that is an actual challenge at their company (from “major challenge” to “not at all a challenge”).

Roughly one-third of the respondents asserted that their employers have made significant strides in their sustainability journeys. Although that number might sound low given the enormity of the task facing us, the good news is that there is momentum, which we can help accelerate by pointing out the roadblocks as perceived by employees. Below, we provide six key recommendations that emerged from our data for managers seeking to embed sustainability in the organizational culture and business models.



1. CB Bhattacharya, “How to Make Sustainability Every Employee’s Responsibility,” Harvard Business Review, Feb. 23, 2018,

2. CB Bhattacharya, “Small Actions, Big Difference: Leveraging Corporate Sustainability to Drive Firm and Societal Value” (New York: Routledge, 2019), 65-66.

3. P. Polman and CB Bhattacharya, “Engaging Employees to Create a Sustainable Business,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 14, no. 4 (fall 2016): 34-39.

4. A. von Buchwaldt, G. Mitchell, S. Reynolds, et al., “3 Steps to Ensure Your Corporate Strategy Delivers Both Growth and Sustainability,” Harvard Business Review, Feb. 6, 2023,

5. T. Galpin, J.L. Whittington, and G. Bell, “Is Your Sustainability Strategy Sustainable? Creating a Culture of Sustainability,” Corporate Governance 15, no. 1 (2015): 1-17.

6. Polman and Bhattacharya, “Engaging Employees.”

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Comment (1)
Michael Zeitlyn
The coupling between ambition and execution on sustainability is not yet where it needs to be.  Most companies don’t routinely view business opportunity ‘through a sustainability lens’ – or at least to an extent where sustainability is the equal of other conventional measures such as price or performance. Although the ‘momentum’ the article refers to is real and the positive intent a source of encouragement, we can’t afford to underestimate the challenge. Changing the culture and values of an organisation is neither easily or quickly achieved and when it comes to sustainability in general and net zero specifically, time is a limited and precious commodity.  As business leaders face-up to this challenge they must expect to encounter both ‘early adopters’ and ‘laggards’ within their organizations. They will need to find ways to accelerate adoption and bridge the chasm so that sustainable thinking is practiced by the majority.   To this end those leading R&D functions can play an important role as a catalyst for change. Working with R&D leadership in large corporations, I have observed changes in both the philosophy and approach to innovation. There remains much to do,  but we see sustainability not only evident in the R&D strategy but progressively a more common facet of day-to-day conversations on projects and opportunities.  The article calls out the need to ‘bridge the last mile’ and points to various steps that can help embed sustainability. I fully endorse this sentiment; we need to take measures that translate the good intent to good business practice.  In that vein I would point those who are interested towards the Net Zero Playbook – the product of a collaboration between the R&D leadership of 7 leading corporations (which form the Science Group CTO Forum), it shares some best practice principles designed to help organizations make progress on this journey.