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A Sweet Spot on the Adoption Curve?

While global economic and political factors might have predicted otherwise, corporate commitments to sustainability-driven management are strengthening.

But even as enterprises overall are strengthening their commitments, one cohort of organizations is expanding its commitments far more aggressively than others — and a gap has emerged between sustainability strategy leaders (“embracers”) and laggards (“cautious adopters”).

Those are among the key findings yielded by the second annual Sustainability & Innovation survey of global corporate leaders — a collaborative study by The Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review. How are organizations responding to the challenges and opportunities of sustainability? How are the terms of competition shifting — or not shifting — in the face of sustainability concerns? How is cutting-edge management practice being transformed as a consequence? Those are the questions explored in this study, through both the global survey and a series of in-depth research interviews with thought leaders and business executives. This report contains the study’s results.

The discovery of broad-based growth in sustainability-related investments is explained in part by further findings that companies increasingly believe sustainability will become a source of advantage, should be incorporated strategically in all aspects of a business’s operations and eventually will require a sea change in competitive behavior. “We need to integrate sustainability, not as a layer, but in the fabric of the business,” argues Katie Harper, manager, sustainable supply chains at Sears Canada, voicing a common view.

“The only way to continue growing and continue being a successful business is to treat sustainability as a key business lever in the same way that you treat marketing, finance, culture, HR or supply chain,” says Santiago Gowland, vice president of brand and global corporate responsibility at Unilever. “So really it’s core to the ability of the business to grow.”

While the survey revealed that most companies view sustainability as eventually becoming “core,” what’s more interesting is the revelation that one camp of businesses — the embracers — is acting on the belief that it is core already.

About the Authors:

Knut Haanaes is a partner and managing director in the Oslo office of The Boston Consulting Group, as well as the global leader of BCG’s Sustainability Initiative.

David Arthur is a consultant in the Oslo office of The Boston Consulting Group.

Balu Balagopal is a senior partner and managing director in the Houston office of The Boston Consulting Group.

Ming Teck Kong is a project leader in the Singapore office of The Boston Consulting Group.

Martin Reeves is a senior partner and managing director in the New York office of The Boston Consulting Group. He is also the global leader of BCG’s Strategy Institute.

Ingrid Velken is a project leader in the Oslo office of The Boston Consulting Group.

Michael S. Hopkins is editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, which brings ideas from the world of thinkers to the executives and managers who use them to build businesses.

Nina Kruschwitz is an editor and the special projects manager at MIT Sloan Management Review, where she coordinates the publication’s editorial and innovation hub activities.


Maurice Berns, Partner and Managing Director, BCG

Keith Bussey, Project Leader, BCG

Sarah Murray, Writer

Diederik Vismans, Consultant, BCG


Aliaa Adel, BCG

Katherine Andrews, BCG

Tobias Balchen, BCG

Mike Barrette, MIT

Gary Callahan, BCG

Chad Ellis, BCG

Patricia Favreau-McKinley, MIT

David Fondiller, BCG

Deb Gallagher, MIT

Eric Gregoire, BCG

Ellen Marie Haarr, BCG

David Torvik Tønne, BCG


Tom Albanese, CEO, Rio Tinto

Brian Bacon, Chairman, Oxford Leadership Academy

Carl E. Binning, Vice President Health, Environment, Safety and Community, BHP Billiton

Edgar Blanco, Research Director, MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics

Roberta Bowman, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Duke Energy

John Compton, CEO, PepsiCo America Foods

Steve Eppinger, Professor of Management Science and Innovation, MIT Sloan School of Management

Dan Esty, Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Yale University

Santiago Gowland, Vice President of Brand & Global Corporate Responsibility, Unilever

Peter Graf, Chief Sustainability Officer, SAP

Brad Haeberle, Vice President Marketing, Siemens

Hal Hamilton, Co-Director, Global Sustainable Food Lab

Katie Harper, Manager, Sustainable Supply Chains, Sears Canada

Stuart Hart, SC Johnson Chair, Cornell University School of Management

Al Iannuzzi, Senior Director of Worldwide Health and Safety, Johnson & Johnson

Kim Jordan, Founder, New Belgium Brewing

Mindy Lubber, President, Ceres

Ernie Moniz, Director, MIT Energy Initiative

Mike Pedersen, Group Head, Wealth Management, TD Bank

Andrew Pelletier, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, Walmart Canada

Nick Robins, Head, Climate Change Center of Excellence, HSBC

Len Sauers, Vice President of Global Sustainability, P&G

Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability, Aspen Skiing Company

Beth Springer, Executive Vice President of International and Personal Care, Clorox

Graeme Sweeney, Executive Vice President of Future Fuels and CO2, Shell

Brian Walker, CEO, Herman Miller

Peter White, Director for Global Sustainability, P&G

Additional Support

Egon Zehnder International

Egon Zehnder International is a privately held executive search firm with nearly 400 consultants operating from 63 wholly owned offices in 37 countries. The firm specializes in senior-level executive search, board consulting and director search, management appraisals and talent management. The firm’s Sustainability Practice works with companies at the executive, team and organizational levels. www.egonzehnder.com


SAP is a market leader in enterprise application software that helps companies of all sizes and industries run better. Founded in 1972, SAP has a rich history of innovation and growth as a true industry leader. Today, SAP has sales and development locations in more than 50 countries worldwide. SAP applications and services enable more than 109,000 customers worldwide to operate profitably, adapt continuously and grow sustainably. www.sap.com


Shell is a global group of energy and petrochemicals companies with approximately 101,000 employees in more than 90 countries and territories. With sustainable development at the core of all business decisions, Shell uses technology and innovation to discover, develop and deliver energy in safe and responsible ways and to help tackle the energy challenges of the future. www.shell.com