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Survey: Sustainability Efforts Sputtering at Most Companies

Nov. 12, 2013
Firms are struggling to integrate sustainability into their core business operations, and engagement between sustainability functions and corporate functions such as marketing, R&D and finance remains very low, according to the survey.

Only one in five companies have fully integrated sustainability into their core business operations, according to a new survey of corporate sustainability executives.

The findings come from a survey conducted by the consulting and research firms BSR and GlobeScan, "State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013." More than 700 leaders from BSR's global network of organizations – which includes firms such as Bank of America, Facebook, General Electric and Pfizer – responded to the survey.  

Only 21 percent of the respondents indicated that their companies have achieved significant integration of sustainability into their overall business operations. A majority said that their companies are about halfway to integration (51 percent) or are just getting started (22 percent).

Compounding the challenge, the survey found that sustainability professionals continue to have low levels of engagement with their colleagues in other functions. Survey respondents reported decreasing engagement between sustainability functions and corporate functions such as investor relations (with 37 percent saying they engage with investor relations, down 1 point from 2011), human resources (34 percent, down 3 points), R&D (32 percent, down 9 points), marketing (28 percent, down 14 points) and finance (16 percent, down 2 points).

For the third year in a row, 62 percent of respondents noted that the integration of sustainability into core business operations is the most important leadership challenge for business today. This was far higher than the next most frequently cited challenge: convincing investors about the value of sustainability (28 percent).

"The trend toward weaker engagement between sustainability functions and core functions such as finance, marketing, HR, investor relations and R&D, is concerning," said Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan. "Not only is engagement limited with these strategic areas, but collaboration between them and sustainability teams has declined – in some cases by a significant margin. While there is a clear need for external collaboration, there is an equally important case to be made for greater internal collaboration."

The survey revealed continued high levels of engagement between sustainability functions and their counterparts in corporate communications. A majority of those surveyed said they engage regularly with corporate communications (75 percent, down 2 points from 2011), public affairs (66 percent, down 2 points), supply chain (64 percent, no change) and the CEO's office (59 percent, down 1 point).

Collaboration Is Key

The survey included questions about the extent and importance of collaboration with external stakeholders. Based on the survey results, the most frequent type of collaboration occurs between business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with 76 percent of respondents saying their companies regularly collaborate with NGOs.

A similar proportion surveyed said they collaborate regularly with industry associations (75 percent) and other companies (70 percent). Fewer companies collaborate often with governments (46 percent) or media (27 percent), both of which are rated as the most difficult partners for collaboration.

When asked to choose which sustainability issues are most in need of need collaboration the most, climate change and public-policy frameworks promoting sustainability ranked highest.

"The survey reveals both the sense of urgency to address climate change, and the sense that meaningful progress goes well beyond the steps a single company can take," observed Aron Cramer, president and CEO of BSR.  "No one sector – not business, government, civil society or consumers – can 'save us' from climate change. The survey demonstrates a maturing understanding of this truth, and the need to generate truly collaborative solutions through creativity and new approaches."

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