State of Sustainable Business – Perspectives from Current and Future Sustainability Leaders

For the past six years, GlobeScan has partnered with BSR in conducting the annual State of Sustainable Business survey. This survey gleans insights from professionals within BSR member organizations on emerging trends, priorities, and practices across a range of environmental, social, and governance issues. In 2014, for the first time, some of the survey questions were extended to undergraduate and MBA members of Net Impact (read the report). The goal was to measure the ways that current and future sustainability leaders view these issues.

Integration of sustainability into the business

Both current and future sustainability leaders believe the most significant leadership challenge facing business today is the integration of sustainability into core business operations. Respondents from BSR member organizations continue to identify this as the most important challenge by far, having ranked integration of sustainability into core business functions as the top challenge for business since 2011. Net Impact respondents agree, highlighting integration as the most important business leadership challenge.


Both BSR professionals and Net Impact students also highlight transparency as a major leadership challenge.  Few BSR professionals and Net Impact students rate businesses highly on this issue (only 26% of BSR respondents and 23% of Net Impact students rate business as transparent). Indeed, Net Impact’s future leaders have a lower perception of business transparency in general, with more rating business as not transparent (31%) than respondents from BSR (20%).

Priorities for Business’ Sustainability Efforts

To gauge sustainability priorities in 2014, both audiences were presented with an identical list of issues. Net Impact students were asked to rate how much of a priority each should be for business’ sustainability efforts over the next 12 months, while BSR professionals were asked to rate the actual level of priority their company places on each issue.
In comparing the two questions, there is a notable contrast between the realities that BSR members experience based on their business roles, and the more heightened sense of expectation from the Net Impact students.
For the sixth consecutive year of this study, professionals from BSR have consistently highlighted human rights, workers’ rights, and climate change as the highest priority issues for their companies’ sustainability efforts over the next 12 months. The chart below shows the proportion of BSR professionals highlighting each issue as a “very significant priority” this year.
For Net Impact students, the majority of respondents considered that all the issues should be a priority for business over the next 12 months. Like BSR current leaders, Net Impact future leaders agreed that climate change was a top 3 priority issue. Unlike BSR respondents, though, Net Impact students ranked sustainable consumption and water issues as burning issues of importance.

In examining these priorities from the Net Impact perspective, the high focus on sustainable consumption is consistent with prior Globescan/BBMG research conducted with “Aspirationals.” This research shows that college-aged millennial consumers have high expectations for business in addressing sustainability issues, especially regarding consumption. These results underscore the imperative for companies to enable consumers to be more sustainable in their purchasing choices.

As Net Impact students graduate into sustainability positions within business, they will have greater power and capacity to promote these priorities and effect change within their organizations – with the help of current leaders like those from BSR and professional Net Impact members. Regardless of how priorities shift over the coming years, members from these two organizations hold significant promise for sustainable business, as their leadership will guide business through some of the most significant challenges yet to come.