Innovation, collaboration and technology are key to breakthroughs, but barriers still remain, according to a study conducted by Economist Intelligence Unit, New York.
The study, “Sustainability Insights: Learning from Business Leaders,” was commissioned by Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises, a bottler and distributor of Minute Maid brands, among others. The research, based on a survey of more than 300 European business executives, explores how businesses' sustainability strategies have performed in recent years and identifies the key drivers for future success.
"Despite the challenging economic environment, companies have largely stayed with their sustainability goals. What we are seeing now is a real shift to mainstream sustainability-related initiatives in Europe. Companies are learning how to better integrate this into their businesses profitably. There is still a lot of room to improve, but this is a profoundly positive change," says Brian Gardner, senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The study says senior leadership is regarded as the most critical driver of sustainability within a business and nearly half of businesses (44%) believe engagement with business leaders will be the most important factor in successfully implementing a sustainability strategy over the next three years. Additionally, at the board level, 28% have periodic meetings addressing sustainability, but only 18% of companies have directors who assess the success of sustainability initiatives.
The research also identifies the need to build a stronger business case to convince the wider European business community of the value of putting sustainability at the heart of its operations. While 52% of companies have been able to maintain their sustainability agenda despite the economic downturn, almost half (44%) of respondents report that the biggest barrier to implementing a sustainability strategy is perceived high costs, coupled with a lack of belief in rates of return.
For those companies that recognize the value of sustainability, the benefits they cite include differentiation from competitors (32%) and enhanced stakeholder engagement (29%). While only one in five (21%) cite boosted profits as a key benefit of their sustainability endeavors.
Leading companies are increasingly turning to collaboration to maximize resources and intelligence. Nearly a third of businesses (32%) now work with competitors to seek out ideas for sustainability innovation, and a similar number (27%) work with NGOs and civil society. Over the next three years, businesses say that partnerships will be important contributors to driving sustainability success.
More than a quarter of companies (28%) believe technological innovation will also drive the success of their sustainability strategy in the next three years. Additionally, 61% say that technological developments contribute to sustainability-related innovations, and 41% say they've successfully harnessed technology to improve their environmental impact.