Survey Reveals Sustainability’s Deepening Imprint

As environmental, social, and governance issues have become ever more important influencers of customer and employee expectations, organizations have tightened their embrace of the sustainability programs that address those issues. According to the latest McKinsey Global Survey on the topic, companies are increasingly formalizing the way they govern sustainability programs, as well as elevating the importance of diversity and inclusion. And a larger share of respondents than ever before say the top reason for implementing a sustainability agenda is better alignment between an organization’s practices and its goals, missions, or values.

The results also shed light on how companies are deploying technologies to manage and support their sustainability agendas. For example, companies have greatly increased their use of both familiar tools, such as energy-efficient equipment, and more innovative ones, such as digital platforms. Despite these advances, many organizations still struggle to capture financial value from their sustainability efforts. Integrating sustainability into one or more core business functions, for instance, is a practice that can help. The integration of sustainability into functional work doubles the likelihood that a company will report financial value from these efforts.

Deeper Engagement With Sustainability as Key Issues and Stakeholders Evolve
Nearly six in 10 respondents say that their organizations are more engaged with sustainability than they were two years ago—and just 9% say that engagement has declined. In some industries, the shares reporting greater engagement are even larger: more than 80% of respondents in consumer packaged goods and three-quarters of those in infrastructure, for example. Respondents also report that their organizations have increased their formal governance of sustainability: 70% say their companies have some form of governance in place, compared with 56% in 2014. What’s more, an increasing share of respondents (16%, up from 12% previously) now report that their companies have a board-level committee dedicated to sustainability issues.

When asked about their companies’ top reasons for addressing sustainability, respondents most often cite alignment with the organization’s own goals, mission, and values. The results also suggest that some stakeholders are becoming more important. Meeting consumer expectations is now among the top five reasons, and the share citing the attraction, motivation, or retention of employees also grew since 2014. The sustainability topics that matter most to businesses vary across industries. Respondents cite diversity and inclusion among the top five most important topics, and it is a top three issue in financial services and high tech. Five years ago, when respondents were asked which issues would be most important by now, renewable energy and waste management topped the list. But, relative to other topics, renewable energy has fallen in importance over the same period—during which installations of renewable-energy sources also increased. Waste management, too, is no longer among the top five topics that matter most to respondents’ organizations.

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