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Last year, Accenture co-produced a report with the United Nations Global Compact titled A New Era of Sustainability: CEO reflections on progress to date, challenges ahead and the impact of the journey toward a sustainable economy. The report focused on examining three main questions with 766 CEOs serving as respondents: 1) Sustainability is changing—how is your company addressing it?; 2) Next step: Taking it from strategy to execution; and 3) What’s ahead: Competing in an era of sustainability.

The BIG finding from the report: 93 percent of 766 CEOs surveyed believe that sustainability will be “important” or “very important” to the future success of their company.

CSR Journalist Aman Singh reports on Accenture's New Era of Sustainability Report

Now, Accenture has produced a followup sector by sector report that offers more clarity — and a wide disparity in this percentage — to the overarching aggregated data by doing a deeper dive by industry.

For example, 100 percent of executives in the automotive and consumer products industries see sustainability as critical to their success but only 68 percent of banking executives see sustainability as “very important” to their future success, and 63 percent reporting that “their company is integrating sustainability ‘much more’ than five years ago.”

As for the communications sector, the percentage of executives seeing sustainability as “very important” to future growth drops to a mere 22 percent.

From Sustainability Strategy to Sustainable Business Practices

As the above-mentioned three questions indicate, however, the 2010 report attempted to be forward-looking in its data. Indicating a wide disconnect between the perceived importance of environmental, social and corporate governance for companies, and how these play in business strategy, the report pointed out that “while the belief in the strategic importance of sustainability issues is widespread among CEOs, executives continue to struggle to approach them as part and parcel of core business strategy.”

The new, follow-up report, adds teeth to this initial observation by showing a disparate practice of sustainable business practices across industries.

While 80 percent of utility industries report embedding sustainability metrics to track performance, 83 percent of CEOs in energy and 81 percent in infrastructure say their “company measures both positive and negative impacts of their activities on sustainability outcomes.”

Is sustainability measurement finally becoming accepted standard practice?

While this aggregated data might indicate so, the reality, according to Accenture’s Managing Director for Sustainability Services for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America Peter Lacy, is that there remain “major gaps remain between CEO ambition and execution.” As evidence, the report offers the automotive industry as an example:

“Ninety-five percent of automotive executives believe that companies should invest in enhanced training of managers to integrate sustainability into strategy and operations, but just 52 percent report that their company already does so.”

Analyzing Sustainability Enthusiasm In a Recession

When Accenture’s New Era of Sustainability report
came out in June last year, I chose to go with a positive headline. I titled my detailed analysis as “Sustainability Moves from Discretionary Choice to Corporate Priority.”

Today, as we deal with a downgraded credit rating for the country of everyone’s dreams, a recession that might never have ended, and businesses once again returning to cautious growth, that optimism is hard to replicate. Troubled by debate after debate (subjects varied from accountability to Wal-mart, upstream recycling to upcycling, compensation limits, and much more) during the recent Sustainable Business Practices workshop held at the University of Vermont, several of the students jested that “Sustainability, after all, is a journey.”

I would add that it is also a mindset: A mindset that understands that business goals (profits, profits, profits) cannot be reached without taking into account the society and the environment you operate in and the human capital that helps you succeed. Will the rest of the sectors detailed in Accenture’s report follow through on their CEOs’ ambitions?

In coming months — and years — with America’s long-term sustainability as an economic power in question, all eyes will be on whether American businesses can pull up their socks and return their operating base to trustworthy status by using sustainability as a guiding principle. Where government fails, business steps in, right fellow #csrchat attendees?

Thoughts? Don’t forget to leave a comment or connect with me @AmanSinghCSR.

Next: Gib Bulloch, Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships discusses the report in Capabilities for the Convergence Economy.