Stay on Target! The State of Sustainable Business

08/14/2017 03:31 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2017

Like it or not, the private sector has an enormous role to play in building the future we all want. It has the influence, scale, and innovation required to create a sustainable economy which will enable more people to live with dignity.

In an encouraging bit of news, a majority of corporate sustainability professionals surveyed recently say they are confident that their companies will stay the course on sustainability regardless of recent changes in policies and governments.

The latest State of Sustainable Business Survey includes responses from around 300 business leaders representing 151 global companies – more than 60 percent of Business for Social Responsibility’s global membership network.

Since the Paris Climate Agreement conference in 2015, we have seen climate change rise in priority. In the latest results, 73 percent of respondents say that climate change is a significant priority for their company, rising back to the top of the priority list (along with human rights) for the first time since 2010.

With this historically high priority being placed on climate change, it is encouraging that 65 percent of corporate sustainability professionals say their company’s commitment to tackling climate change will be unaffected by the exit of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Moreover, 12 percent say their commitment would actually be strengthened. This commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement was demonstrated by the public pleas that many companies, cities, and states made to the Trump administration to keep the US in the agreement, as well as by a number of CEOs quickly leaving Presidential Advisory Councils in protest following the announcement of the US withdrawal.

When we asked corporate sustainability professionals to indicate their level of confidence that their company would continue to make progress on sustainability issues if government regulations were removed, the vast majority (88%) responded that they are at least fairly confident, with 65 percent very or extremely confident.

This suggests that at least where sustainability is concerned, companies are not necessarily relying on governments to lead the way. In fact, the vast majority (85%) of respondents believe that large global companies can have the greatest positive impact on advancing sustainability over the next ten years. However, government is not off the hook, as 57 percent indicate that national governments are also important for making progress.

While there is a strong belief that large global companies can positively advance sustainability over the next ten years, the private sector’s historical performance is not perceived in such positive terms. In our recent Sustainability Leaders survey, professionals from a broad range of organizations – private sector, NGOs, academia, and government – were asked to rate different institutions on their contribution to sustainable development since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Here the private sector performs relatively poorly, with just 23 percent of experts giving a positive rating, compared to 59 percent for NGOs.

A gap such as this in businesses’ expectations of itself and wider perceptions of its performance should precipitate companies to rethink their approaches to sustainability in order to live up to their own expectations.

One way in which companies can help drive their sustainability strategies to new heights is to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a mechanism to set corporate performance targets. The percentage of companies who have already adopted the SDGs in some form has almost doubled since our previous survey in 2016. However, as the chart below shows, there are still many who will not engage or have not yet done so.

With over half of respondent companies indicating that sustainability is now among the top five priorities of their CEO, are we finally entering a place where corporate sustainability will truly be mainstream?

We sure hope so. We are already halfway through 2017, which means that we have less than 13 years to build a better future. We still have much work to do to stay on target.

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