Despite the economic downturn and tenuous recovery, more than two-thirds of businesses are strengthening their commitment to sustainability, according to a new global study by MIT Sloan Management Review (MIT SMR) and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
The study, "Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage," found that 69 percent of companies plan to step up their investment in and management of sustainability this year. More than one-quarter (26 percent) plan no change, and only 2 percent intend to cut back on their commitment.
The second annual Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study by MIT SMR and BCG comprises a survey of more than 3,100 corporate leaders representing every major industry and region of the world and more than 30 in-depth interviews with experts from a range of disciplines, such as energy science, civil engineering, management and urban studies.
The study also found that a two-speed landscape is emerging, with a gap between sustainability “embracers”—those who place sustainability high on their agenda—and nonembracers or “cautious adopters,” who have yet to focus on more than energy cost savings, material efficiency and risk mitigation.
Embracers are significantly more confident about their competitive position than nonembracers are. Seventy percent of embracers say they believe their organizations outperform industry peers. By contrast, only 53 percent of cautious adopters described themselves as outperformers, and 14 percent admitted to lagging behind peers—more than twice the percentage of embracers who made the same claim (6 percent).
In addition, nearly three times as many embracers (66 percent) than cautious adopters (23 percent) say that their organization’s sustainability actions and decisions have increased their profits.
“What’s fascinating is that our findings depict a business landscape in general that’s tilting hard toward where the embracers already are,” said Michael Hopkins, editor-in-chief of MIT SMR and a coauthor of the report. “So the embracers have handed us a kind of crystal ball. Their insights and behaviors suggest a blueprint for how management practice and competitive strategy will evolve.”
The report identifies seven specific practices exhibited by embracer companies—which together begin to define sustainability-driven management. Among the other findings:
- Improved brand reputation is perceived as the biggest benefit of addressing sustainability: nearly 50 percent of respondents cited it.
- Automotive is seen as the industry for which sustainability is most critical now: 80 percent of executives say sustainability-related strategies are necessary to be competitive in the auto sector.
- By contrast, only 29 percent of respondents thought sustainability strategies are currently necessary for the media and entertainment industry. But another 51 percent say they will be necessary in the future.
- The commitment of the cautious adopters to sustainability is increasing at a far faster rate than that of the embracers. The number of cautious adopters planning to increase investment and management attention jumped from 51 percent last year to 63 percent this year—a 24 percent increase. At the same time, the percentage of embracers planning similar increases, though high, remained flat at a little under 90 percent.
“Most companies—whether currently embracers or not—are looking toward a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy,” said Knut Haanaes, a BCG partner and managing director and coauthor of the report. “Those not already putting sustainability at the heart of their business will need to do so in the near term.”
(Story materials provided by MIT Sloan School of Management.)