This Is How Far Companies Have Moved Toward Sustainable Business (Not Far Enough)

Tracking how sustainability is being embraced by the business community over time is an exercise in patience–and embracing little victories.

This Is How Far Companies Have Moved Toward Sustainable Business (Not Far Enough)
[Illustrations: iulias via Shutterstock]

The BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey, now in its seventh year, tracks the gradual emergence of sustainability in mainstream U.S. business. Based on responses from BSR’s 250 corporate members, the survey shows how attitudes are changing towards issues like climate change, the “inclusive economy,” supply chains, human rights and the circular economy.


And the pace of change is slow. You get the feeling that BSR/GlobeScan State must struggle to create a sense of momentum, just from the Executive Summary:

Companies today are experiencing greater integration of sustainability into the business, due in part to increased buy-in from leaders regarding the benefits of sustainability.

But that’s not to say that things aren’t happening. The survey shows evidence of advanced sustainability among some companies: where environmental and social metrics are weaved into the planning and budgeting process, where sustainability is “driven by internal factors, rather than external events,” and where the emphasis shifts away from philanthropy–which is nice, but necessarily ad hoc–to more systematic objectives for organizations to take up.

14% of respondents say that “sustainability is increasingly a part of [their] core business, and can no longer be divorced from overall strategy”. A total of 40% say their own sustainability programs are the primary drivers for their efforts (not necessarily regulation or investor pressure). And 42% see sustainability “playing an increasingly vital role in business,” while 18% are “uncertain” (somehow).

Four hundred and forty “sustainability professionals” from 196 companies responded to the survey. Human rights and worker rights were apparently the highest sustainability priorities (more than 60% of respondents for each) with climate change next. Poverty reduction was last, with only 26% listing it as a priority.

When asked about the upcoming global climate talks in Paris, in December, leaders were divided: 69% of European leaders place “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of significance on the talks, while only 41% of American leaders feel the same way. In the U.S., 55% place “not very much” emphasis or “none at all” on the U.N.’s COP21 process.


The sustainability professionals, 46% of whom were from the U.S., were asked about barriers to action on climate changes with their businesses. American respondents were most likely to say they have difficulty understanding the business case (17%) and to cite limited budgets to manage climate risks (19%). Internationally, “lack of regulatory incentives” was the most popular answer.

You can see more results here, or in the slide show.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.