These days, most business leaders have had enough media training to think they know what the outside world wants to hear. And right now, sustainability is one box they are sure to tick. Ask a CEO if sustainability is a strategic issue for their firm, and you'll only ever hear one answer: yes.
Why is it, then, that budgets for sustainability initiatives are frequently so small that they appear to have been shoved in as an afterthought? Urgency to get the keyword sustainability out in the open isn't matched by funding, but why not? Is it simply a symbolic business unit, or are businesses genuinely concerned about sustainability?
To find out what's really going on in businesses, you need to get under the skin of corporate sustainability speak. And that's exactly what we did. Instead of asking board members about their firm's sustainability strategies, we sidestepped them altogether.
Who really knows whether or not sustainability is a priority for a business? Those that have sustainability in their job title, or job description. We spoke to 250 sustainability decision-makers from big firms with revenues over $250m (£155m) representing 21 industries and 13 countries. They told us whether or not it is really as high up the business agenda as it seems, what their job entails, where they see sustainability heading in their firm and what their CEO really thinks about the issue. These are some of the things we heard.
Sustainability isn't as important as keynote speeches might make it appear. Over half of the sustainability decision-makers that we spoke to said their CEO is pushing the topic into the distant future, describing it as a long-term issue, or one that is totally new to their firm. But there's a sense across businesses that this issue isn't going to go away. Over 90% of these same decision-makers claimed that they expect things will change by 2015, as sustainability gathers momentum. Not surprisingly, when pushing a sustainability project forward for funding, decision-makers try to win their CEOs around with the prospect of reduced costs and/or increased revenues – it's the most convincing argument they have in these credit-crunch times.
Sustainability might be important, but that doesn't mean that funding reflects this. Nearly 40% of sustainability decision-makers expect their budgets will remain the same in 2013; a handful of respondents even expect them to shrink. And interestingly, a fifth of sustainability decision-makers can't even pinpoint what proportion of global revenues their firm channels into sustainability projects. Why is it so difficult to put into numbers? Because sustainability isn't boxed into one business unit.
A relatively new item on the corporate agenda, businesses haven't got a blueprint for sustainability's role within their firm. So what sustainability decision-makers do, and the responsibility they're given, varies considerably. But while sustainability leaders told us they set targets and policies, implement projects and measure progress, they're not always fully in charge. We heard that only a fifth of sustainability leaders have full authority over decision-making, and less than a quarter of these leaders have complete control over sustainability budgets. So while the job title might appear impressive, that doesn't mean that they actually have full responsibility for sustainability in their firm.
While executives may well be flaunting sustainability in their words, this doesn't mean they are equally as generous when it comes to budget allocation. The sustainability leaders we spoke to have big ideas and ambitious initiatives; often, their ability to generate results is stifled by a lack of funds and limited authority.
To access the Global Sustainability Leaders Survey click here.