April 3, 2014

The agenda for action: Seven steps to sustainability and success


In the world’s largest CEO study on sustainability to date, more than 1,000 top executives from 27 industries across 103 countries assess the past, present and future of sustainable business; discuss a new global architecture to unlock the full potential of business in contributing to global priorities; and reveal how leading companies are adopting innovative strategies to combine impact and value creation.


Leading companies are not waiting for policymakers to act. Our conversations with CEOs suggest that in the absence of government intervention, some are beginning to harness the potential of sustainability: moving from a reactive approach of responding to societal expectations and regulatory demands, leading companies are now driving sustainability as an engine for innovation and growth. The advances of these leading companies, and their adoption of large-scale, collaborative projects targeted directly at value creation through addressing the priorities of global sustainable development, are beginning to demonstrate how business impact can be scaled beyond incremental advances and efficiency gains.




This year, the Global Compact and Accenture study team set out to investigate the links between CEOs’ attitudes and the performance of their companies against traditional business performance metrics and sustainability leadership indicators. To our knowledge, this is the first time that this has been undertaken with a CEO-level group. While extensive work has been done on the correlations between a commitment to sustainability and traditional metrics of business performance,4 the CEO Study presents a unique opportunity to examine how business leaders’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors influence their strategies and investments, as well as set the trajectory of their companies in driving advantage through sustainability.


An examination of survey responses from those companies covered by this year’s study and by Accenture’s long-term High-Performance Business research program produces the early indications of a potentially striking conclusion. CEOs of companies that combine externally-recognized sustainability leadership with market-leading business performance, as measured by traditional metrics including revenue growth, profitability and shareholder returns, approach sustainability in markedly different ways to those who are failing to achieve this distinction—with different motivations, different influencers and different areas prioritized for investment, innovation and action.


Feel free to download the full report here: 


Transformational Leaders are approaching sustainability differently, providing a model for greater impact and value creation


Together with the insights from our in-depth conversations with CEOs, our findings may begin to lay the foundations of a deeper understanding of how companies can drive sustainability to competitive advantage. At its heart is a different approach, moving beyond reactive, incremental responses to external pressures and toward a new understanding of sustainability as an opportunity for innovation, competitive advantage, differentiation and growth. Leading CEOs are already uncovering strategies for sustainability that allow them to deliver both value creation for their companies and impact on global challenges; they are not waiting for others to act, but are actively creating real value for consumers, investors and society. From our research, CEOs see seven key themes that can guide their own thinking and actions, as well as transforming their companies’ strategies, business models, value chains and industries in order to achieve sustainability leadership and high performance.


1. Realism & context

Understanding the scale of the challenge—and the opportunity.


Throughout our interviews, it was clear that companies taking the most ambitious action on sustainability were also the most realistic about the scale of the challenge—and are more likely to admit that business is not doing enough. Understanding the challenge also allows these companies to appreciate the opportunity for future growth in providing solutions to sustainability issues and to target strategies to achieve it.


2. Growth & differentiation

Turning sustainability to advantage and value creation.


One of the clearest insights from this year’s study is the emergence of a two-speed world in sustainability, between those companies still reacting to external expectations on sustainability and focusing on incremental mitigation, and those that see sustainability through the lens of growth and differentiation. For leading companies, many CEOs told us that the urgency of global challenges provides an opportunity to differentiate their products and services; to access new market segments; and to grow into new regions, countries and areas where their products can meet a pressing need.


3. Value & performance

“What gets measured gets managed.”


From carbon emissions to water footprints, tracking environmental measures is now commonplace across industries. Our research suggests that, for companies seeking to go beyond incremental change and tackle global sustainability issues, the challenge is two-fold: not just to measure and manage metrics of reduction and mitigation, but also to quantify the value of sustainability initiatives and more sustainable business models to the company, and to track their impact on the communities in which they operate.


4. Technology & innovation

New models for success.


Our data suggests that leading companies are turning to innovation and technology. Environmental and resource constraints, and growing social pressures, are acting as a stimulus for innovation. From investment in renewables, to intelligent infrastructure enabled by machine-to-machine communications technology, to new closed-loop business models, leading companies are securing business advantage through innovative R&D and the deployment of technologies ranging from cloud computing to analytics.


5. Partnerships & collaboration

New challenges, new solutions.


We have seen a growing confidence from CEOs over the last decade that business can provide solutions to tackle global challenges. This year, in the context of intensifying pressures and flagging efforts, CEOs more readily acknowledge the role of collaboration and partnerships in meeting their ambitions on sustainability. Business can lead the way, they believe, and can maximize companies’ impact through close partnerships with governments, policymakers, industry peers, consumers and NGOs.


6. Engagement & dialogue

Broadening the conversation.


Business leaders are increasingly conscious of the need to establish a constructive, two-way dialogue with consumers and local communities; regulators and policy makers; investors and shareholders; employees and labor unions. Rather than simply acting and then communicating, CEOs are actively engaging stakeholders to negotiate the role of their business in addressing global challenges.


7. Advocacy & leadership

Shaping future systems.


Leading CEOs are clear that business efforts are not sufficient to set the global economy on track—but believe strongly that business should lead the way toward defining and delivering a sustainable global economy, not least through the post-2015 development agenda. They are realistic that individually they can only have so much impact, but recognize a need to play a part in collaborative solutions with governments and other stakeholders. Business leaders’ advocacy and public commitment will be integral to further progress.


The full report can be downloaded here: 

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