Stay on Target! Stay on Target! – Results from the Ninth Annual BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey

With all that has happened over the past 12 months, it felt appropriate to include this Star Wars reference in the title of this blog. Far from being gratuitous, I use it to highlight the positive reaction that many businesses have had to the significant political shocks and instability that we have been witnessing.
In BSR and GlobeScan’s ninth annual Sustainable Business Survey, a majority of corporate sustainability professionals say they are confident that their companies will stay the course on sustainability regardless of recent changes in policies and governments.
The State of Sustainable Business Survey, released today, includes responses from around 300 business leaders representing 151 global companies—more than 60 percent of BSR’s global membership network.
Since 2015, the year of the Paris Climate Agreement conference, we have seen climate change rise in priority among BSR member organizations. 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.

Interestingly, with this historically high priority being placed on climate change, it is encouraging that 65 percent of respondents say their company’s commitment to tackling climate change will be unaffected by the exit of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.1 Moreover, 12 percent say their commitment would be strengthened. This commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement was demonstrated by the public pleas many companies 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.
Furthermore, when we asked 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 (who are mostly from large global companies) believe that they 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.

However, 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 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. My BSR associate, Laura Gitman, argues this point excellently in a blog written in response to our survey findings.
One way in which companies can help drive their sustainability strategies to new heights, and help to keep the world on target, is to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a mechanism to set corporate performance targets. Thankfully our survey points to increasing numbers of companies doing just this. 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.


This will hopefully change, with more companies heeding the advice of GlobeScan, BSR, and others such as the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, whose flagship report Better Business, Better World makes the compelling case that there is an “economic prize” for companies that align with the SDGs.2

Chasing such an economic prize is clearly something that should be attractive to CEOs, and it is encouraging that our survey shows that sustainability is continuing to climb up their corporate agendas.

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 save the earth. We still have much work to do to stay on target.
All company-level responses were submitted prior to the US government announcing its departure from the Paris Agreement on June 1. The question asked hypothetically if the US were to pull out of the Paris agreement whether it would affect their company’s commitment to tackle climate change.
Full disclosure: Gail Klintworth, a member of the Better Business, Better World report team, is a GlobeScan advisor and board member.