A survey asked 1,000 CEOs how they felt about their work on the environment, and most of them gave the same answer: not that great

alan jope unileverRichard Bord/Getty Images

  • A report from Accenture and the UN Global Compact found that the majority of 1,000 CEOs surveyed believe the business world is not doing enough with its sustainability agenda.
  • The CEOs stressed the need for collaboration among competitors in sharing best practices for sustainability, and for having CEOs incorporate their agenda into their corporate cultures.
  • This article is part of Business Insider's ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A new survey of 1,000 CEOs from around the world found that roughly 80% don't believe businesses are doing enough for sustainability.

The report, "A Decade to Deliver: A Call to Business Action," was a joint venture by the United Nations Global Compact, a corporate sustainability group, and the professional-services firm Accenture. It was published Tuesday, the first day of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit at the 2019 UN General Assembly in New York.

"Business leaders told us that they face an ever more competitive and challenging business environment, and an intense set of pressures which include global trade and political uncertainties, pressure from activist investors, and the pace and scale of the technology revolutions taking place in digital, biological and physical innovation," Peter Lacy, Accenture's head of strategy in the UK and Ireland and one of the report's authors, wrote to Business Insider.

Lacy and his coauthors identified three calls to action from their survey.

"Raise ambition and impact"

Those surveyed recognized that finding sustainable solutions is necessary for the long-term health of their business, and must no longer be seen as merely a way to get publicity.

Consumer goods giant Unilever has for the past several years been one of the most vocal companies for raising this ambition. Its CEO, Alan Jope, told Accenture that the UN's SDGs "are not just a nice thing to do - they are a path to a prosperous world."

"Change collaboration"

The CEOs recognized that working toward the SDGs requires collaboration with industry competitors.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, founded by the unlikely pairing of Walmart and Patagonia and now with 250 members, is an example of how retailers are willing to share best practices for sustainability, even as they compete for the same customers.

"Redefine responsible leadership"

The authors found that the CEOs define responsible leadership as:
  • Taking risks on systemic changes within their businesses
  • Driving market demand by making sustainable options available to all consumers
  • Incorporating their initiatives into their corporate cultures
  • Using science as the basis for their sustainability initiatives, and having an understanding of how they work
  • Collaborating with other leaders in their industry
  • Being personally motivated to see the goals achieved
  • Tying sustainability initiatives to financial goals and communicating them to investors
  • Leading authentically (not "greenwashing")

While the overarching message of both the report and the opening speeches of the SDG Summit were, "We're not doing enough," it's in a context of taking the goals more seriously than before. As UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Tuesday, "The private sector is coming to understand that green business is good business."

Accenture's Lacy agreed. "There is reason for optimism," he wrote to Business Insider. "Not only are leaders committed to sustainability and understand its importance to the competitive agility of their organizations, but the technologies and solutions that can enable change already exist today. They just need harnessing."

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