Study Points to Bright and Dark Spots in Corporate Sustainability

Our dedication to the corporate engine that runs our consumer culture makes corporate perspectives on sustainability unavoidably important. It is not uncommon in this country to have localities where the vast majority of residents are diligently proactive on sustainability efforts (say recycling for example) while the participation of businesses remains tepid. With the amount of man hours and resources that companies use in order to do business, they have to be part of any equation that leads to a better outcome.

McKinsey & Company recently released results to a new survey searching for the pulse of sustainability within the world of corporate executives in the global economy. While the tone of the release is cast in a positive light, the survey results point to both the good news and the bad news relating to progress for sustainability in the corporate environment.

According to the survey, awareness is up. The word is out and its penetrating deeper into the ranks of the corporate world. So what is the impetus behind the growing force of dedication? The survey respondents gave Reputation, Cost Cutting  and Alignment as the top three reasons that their organizations address sustainability. The first two certainly make sense, but matter less when it comes to actually addressing the underlying issues of what make our society less sustainable. Becoming more environmentally responsible because sustainability “aligns with the company’s goals, mission or values” is more indicative of actual progressive change. The fact that 43% of respondents (the largest share) listed “Alignment” among these top priorities is a bright spot.

corporate sustainability chart

However, a great deal of the survey seemed to imply that companies were more interested in focusing on how to portray a sustainable image than they were in actually imposing sustainable change. The survey reports that “Communicating Company’s Sustainability Activities to Consumers” is a practice the largest number of companies (60%) are currently pursuing. It is also, unsurprisingly, listed as the practice that is most important in maximizing financial value while things like “Broader societal investment” is last in both respective categories. Put another way, the perception is that having customers think that you’re sustainable helps the bottom line more than actually being sustainable.

Corporate sustainability chart

This reality cast a shadow over the survey results that diluted the some of the positive results. In a way, the survey started in the wrong direction with the title “Sustainability’s Strategic Worth.” The name itself implies that sustainability is a tactic or a hook meant to be used as a way to differentiate products to the customer base and increase sales rather than it being a positive societal direction that should be the way we do business that may in turn attract customers who appreciate companies that operate responsibly.

Some of the reports summarizing text from the included:

“As sustainability rises in significance, capturing its full value grows more challenging—perhaps because the more that companies prioritize sustainability, the more it needs to be integrated into (and even change) the core business.”

Now we’re talking. One of the biggest impasses to sustainable progress is the misconception that sustainability is a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle–another way of saying that it’s an effort to find ways to improve that do not require us to change. On the contrary (and as the authors of the report begin to elude to) sustainability is the lifestyle. It is the way we do things and becoming more sustainable will require change.  Though the report didn’t indicate that global company leadership have actually begun to understand, let alone act on, this relationship, it was good to see the point acknowledged in the text.

While the survey points to general awareness rising, are more companies focusing on sustainability because they believe it is important or because it’s a word they can make money from? At the same time, it’s fair to ask whether or not that matters? This forum has posed the question before of whether or not doing the right things for the wrong reasons is still a good thing. One could argue the defining aspect would be, regardless of the intentions, whether or not there is identifiable progress being made. Are we using less energy? Are we levying less stress on the environment? Are we becoming better stewards of our resources? These are questions that this particular survey didn’t address, but the answers of which could determine how meaningful the increase in corporate awareness really is.