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Sustainability: The “Embracers” Seize Advantage

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    In This Article
    • Sustainability spending has survived the downturn, with almost 60 percent of the global corporate leaders surveyed saying that corporate investments in sustainability increased in 2010.

    • Embracers tend to participate in resource-intensive industries. While our research found that 23 percent of embracers operate within the service sector, it also found a higher proportion—30 percent—in the product industry sector.

    • Even cautious adopters are increasingly buying in. In 2010, 51 percent of cautious adopters said they had stepped up their sustainability investments, compared with 63 percent who said they will increase sustainability spending in 2011.


    Although global economic and political factors might have predicted otherwise, corporate commitments to sustainability-driven management are strengthening.

    But even as enterprises overall are deepening their commitments, one cohort of organizations is expanding them far more aggressively than others—and a gap has emerged between sustainability strategy leaders (“embracers”) and laggards (“cautious adopters”).

    These are among the key findings yielded by the second annual Sustainability & Innovation research report, a collaborative study and survey of global corporate leaders undertaken by The Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review.

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    How are organizations responding to the challenges and opportunities of sustainability? How are the terms of competition shifting—or not shifting—in the face of sustainability concerns? How is cutting-edge management practice being transformed as a consequence? These questions are explored in this report through both the global survey and a series of in-depth research interviews with thought leaders and business executives.

    The broad-based growth in sustainability-related investments uncovered in the research is explained in part by further findings that companies increasingly believe sustainability will become a source of advantage, should be incorporated strategically in all aspects of business operations, and eventually will require a sea change in competitive behavior. “We need to integrate sustainability, not as a layer, but in the fabric of the business,” argues Katie Harper, manager of sustainable supply chains at Sears Canada.

    “The only way to continue growing and continue being a successful business is to treat sustainability as a key business lever in the same way that you treat marketing, finance, culture, HR, or the supply chain,” says Santiago Gowland, vice president of brand and global corporate responsibility at Unilever. “So really, it’s core to the ability of the business to grow.”

    While the research revealed that most companies view sustainability as eventually becoming “core,” what’s more interesting is the revelation that one camp of businesses—the embracers—is acting on the belief that it is already an essential requirement. Whereas cautious adopters see the business case for sustainability in terms of risk management and efficiency gains, embracer companies see the payoff of sustainability-driven management largely in intangible advantages, process improvements, the ability to innovate, and—critically—in the opportunity to grow. And the embracers, it turns out, were the highest-performing businesses identified by the research.

    Who are the embracers? What do they do differently? By tracking the steps that the embracer companies are taking, how these stand out from the actions of more cautious adopters, and how the embracers’ strategies are paying off, this report paints a picture of what management might look like in a world increasingly driven by the sustainability agenda.

    To Contact the Authors

    • Senior Partner & Managing Director
    • Houston
    • Editor and Special Projects Manager
      MIT Sloan Management Review

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