The Business of Sustainability: What It Means to Managers Now

How are sustainability pressures altering the competitive landscape, and how are businesses responding? The first annual Business of Sustainability Survey and interview project found answers.

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Sustainability is garnering ever-greater public attention and debate. The subject ranks high on the legislative agendas of most governments; media coverage of the topic has proliferated; and sustainability issues are of increasing concern to humankind.

However, the business implications of sustainability merit greater scrutiny — and scrutiny of a different kind than the “green”-oriented focus that’s most common. Will sustainability change the competitive landscape and reshape the opportunities and threats that companies face? If so, how? How worried are executives and other stakeholders about the impact of sustainability efforts on the corporate bottom line? What — if anything — are companies doing now to capitalize on sustainability-driven changes? And what strategies are they pursuing to position themselves competitively for the future?

To begin answering those questions, we conducted a year-long inquiry that involved in-depth interviews with more than 50 global thought leaders, followed by the Business of Sustainability Survey of more than 1,500 worldwide executives and managers about their perspectives on the intersection of sustainability and business strategy, including their assessments of how their own companies are acting on sustainability threats or opportunities right now.1 The survey will be conducted annually, in order to track changes in how companies are thinking and acting.

This article can contain only the high-level findings and highlights from the interviews and survey. For a complete look at the survey results as well as more extensive reporting and analysis, go online to the MIT Sloan Management Review’s Web-based guide to all the articles, results and data reports yielded by the project.

There, as here, you will find not only answers but, equally interestingly, questions that are coming to the fore as sustainability concerns of all kinds reshape management practices and strategy. Why is the business case for sustainability-related investments hard to build, even when opportunities seem apparent? What particular capabilities and characteristics must organizations cultivate in order to compete most effectively in the new, sustainability-altered landscape? How will the relationships among companies, communities, individuals and governments be changed by sustainability issues, and what opportunities does that present?

First, though, the immediate questions: What are executives thinking and doing about sustainability-driven concerns right now? What’s impeding their attempts to both capitalize on opportunities and defend against threats?

Here’s what our thought-leader interviews and corporate executive survey revealed.



1. The Sustainability Initiative research project, and the articles and reports that it yields, is a collaboration between the MIT Sloan Management Review and its knowledge partner, The Boston Consulting Group Inc., with additional support from initiative sponsor SAS Institute Inc. For a complete guide to the project, go to its dedicated MIT Sloan Management Review Web page:

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