« Company leaders are rallying behind sustainability, and executives overall believe the issue is increasingly important to their companies’ strategy. But as it continues to grow into a core business issue, challenges to capturing its full value lie ahead. These are among the key findings from our most recent McKinsey survey on the topic,1 which asked respondents about the actions their companies are taking to address environmental, social, or governance issues, the practices they use to manage sustainability, and the value at stake.
One such challenge is reputation management. Year over year, large shares of executives cite reputation as a top reason their companies address sustainability; of the 13 core activities we asked about, they say reputation has the most value potential for their industries. However, many of this year’s respondents say their companies are not pursuing the reputation-building activities that would maximize that financial value.
Comparing companies with the most effective sustainability programs (our sustainability “leaders”) with others in their industries highlights another obstacle: incorporating sustainability into key organizational processes, such as performance management, one area where the leaders report better results than others. Beyond strong performance on processes, the leaders share other characteristics that are keys to a successful sustainability program—among them, aggressive goals (both internal and external), a focused strategy, and broad leadership buy-in.
According to executives, sustainability is becoming a more strategic and integral part of their businesses. In past surveys, when asked about their companies’ reasons for pursuing sustainability, respondents most often cited cost cutting or reputation management. Now 43 percent (and the largest share) say their companies seek to align sustainability with their overall business goals, mission, or values2—up from 30 percent who said so in 2012 (Exhibit 1).
More and more companies are addressing sustainability to align with their business goals
One reason for the shift may be that company leaders themselves believe the issue is more important. CEOs are twice as likely as they were in 2012 to say sustainability is their top priority. Larger shares of all other executives also count sustainability as a top three item on their CEOs’ agendas ».