Stuck on good intentions

When everyone thought that CEOs today are emerging as the champions and ambassadors of the sustainability movement, the findings of the latest UN Global Compact—Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013, makes a shocking revelation

Sixty seven percent of CEOs do not believe business is doing enough to address global sustainability challenges. This is the strong view a study of more than 1,000 CEOs across the world has found. This is the world’s largest CEO study on sustainability, representing CEO perspectives on what it will take to harness sustainability as a transformative force in the global economy—helping to put in place a new global architecture for corporate sustainability. “The CEOs see their companies stuck on a plateau of good intentions, uncertain of the way to the summit. But among sustainability business leaders, we see the beginnings of a collaborative, systems approach to sustainability, focused on the impact business can make.”

Key findings
Sustainability is firmly on the CEO agenda, but underlying their in-depth conversations with these leaders is a sense of frustrated ambition. Some 63 percent expect sustainability to transform their industry in five years—and 76 percent believe that embedding sustainability into core business will drive revenue growth and new opportunities. But they are constrained by market expectations.

There is growing skepticism among business leaders that addressing global sustainability challenges will ever become critical to their business success—and in turn, the CEOs appear to be refocusing on issues close to home. While 93 percent of CEOs regard sustainability as key to success, only 45 percent feel sustainability is “very important” to future success. Also, two-thirds selected “growth and employment” as top priorities to address for future business success—a reflection of the economic priorities foremost in the minds of many.

Business leaders also see a plateau effect in sustainability— and are struggling to make the business case for action. Only 76 percent of the CEOs are satisfied with the speed and effectiveness of the execution of their company’s sustainability strategy, and nearly two-thirds believe they are doing enough to address sustainability challenges. However, more than a third—37 percent—report that the lack of a clear link to business value is a critical factor in deterring them from taking faster action on sustainability.

Marking a watershed in the progression of corporate sustainability, CEOs make an unequivocal call for greater government intervention to shape a supportive landscape for business action on sustainability. They also favor a new approach from business toward harnessing sustainability as an opportunity for innovation and growth at scale— becoming the “transformative leaders.”

There is strong and vocal support among CEOs for governments to play a leading role in shaping the landscape for sustainability at global, national and local levels: 83 percent of CEOs see an increase in efforts by governments and policymakers to provide an enabling environment for the private sector as integral to advancing sustainability.

What the Global Compact CEOs seem to be saying is that they increasingly realize that they can’t really influence global outcomes given their current business environment. No matter how much they might be trying, how much progress they believe they’re making at the company level and how much money they’re saving from efficiency measures, it’s not going to change the end-game. The 2013 CEO Study on Sustainability is important because a large group of CEOs are saying that they need public policy to help enable the kinds of sustainability efforts that they want to pursue. A large group of influential CEOs is willing to work to advance policy action in a much more aggressive way than in the past.

 

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