New report documents CEO 'frustration' on achieving sustainability goals

Business leaders are struggling to make progress on fostering corporate sustainability, according to a new report from the United Nations Global Compact, launched Friday at an event featuring remarks from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a panel of global CEOs.

The report, entitled ”The UN Global Compact — Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013,” includes insights gathered from 1,000 corporate CEOs on the status of corporate sustainability. 

According to the report, only 33 percent of the CEOs surveyed said that “business is making sufficient efforts to address global sustainability challenges” and a similar percengate believe “the global economy is on track to meet the demands of a growing population.”

That lack of confidence is concerning, and it represents a decline in confidence and optimism from as recently as 2010, said Georg Kell, executive director of the U.N. Global Compact.

Kell said three years ago, the last time the U.N. Global Compact’s Leaders Summit convened, CEOs felt “bullish” about the prospect of aligning global markets with the sustainability challenges, which include climate change, water security and economic equality.

But today, CEOs are more “reticent” about their own sustainability leadership capabilities and believe government instead has to play a central role in delivering the policy changes required to shift incentives.

For most companies featured in the report, said Kell, “business as usual gets in the way.” He described a “palpable sense of frustration” among the CEOs about the speed and scale of the corporate world’s ability to shift toward long-term thinking.  

What’s needed, the report’s commissioners argued, is a new architecture for collaboration among business, NGOs and governments, and more corporate leaders who see sustainability not as something to dabble in on the side, but as a core business strategy.

Creating that architecture is one of the UNGC Leaders Summit’s main objectives, which has been invigorated, advocates say, through the post-2015 development agenda-setting process.

But even with the publication of a glossy conceptual model — the UN’s “post-2015 business engagement architecture” — some participants at this year’s summit have expressed concerns the gathering has so far identified few concrete opportunities for action and appears more like a networking event than an occaison to prompt business leaders to make difficult trade-offs between short and long-term goals.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman, however, suggested the concern CEOs expressed in the UNGC-Accenture study should not suggest that businesses and business leaders are not doing anything about sustainability.

Rather, he said, growing concerns over environmental crises and the persistence of absolute poverty have set the bar higher for what corporate sustainability actors are being asked — and are still struggling — to achieve.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.