The 2016 United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy CEO Study—the most recent in more than a decade of research—reveals a window of opportunity in the minds of the world’s business leaders. Since the last study in 2013, frustrated ambition has given way to optimism as CEOs see a mandate to solve societal challenges as a core element in the search for competitive advantage.
The adoption of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides the backdrop to this year’s study. Results suggest that business leaders are committed to driving forward this universal ambition, forging a stronger global environment for doing business in the foothills of the fourth industrial revolution. The majority of CEOs surveyed (87 percent) believe the SDGs provide an opportunity to rethink approaches to sustainable value creation—and 78 percent already see opportunities to contribute through core business.
While CEOs recognize the scale of the challenge, the milestones of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement are leading to a growing acceptance of the mandate for business to play a leading role in Agenda 2030. Nearly half of all CEOs surveyed (49 percent) believe that business will be the single most important actor in delivering the SDGs.
Leading businesses are redefining competitiveness, and changing the world in the process. In an era of digital disruption and radical transparency, business leaders are grounding strategies for value creation in societal purpose. Against a backdrop of change as dramatic and uncertain as any in the last 250 years, the adoption of the SDGs gives the world a universal roadmap for development. The private sector now has a window of opportunity to reshape the way we live and work.
More than a decade of research on sustainable business suggests that companies mature through common stages, with similar motivators and opportunities to create value for the company and for the world.
Consider the typical progression. Sustainability initiatives often begin as discretionary efforts, motivated by compliance pressures, or even by moral obligation. At their most mature, they are a non-negotiable part of
the organization’s DNA anchored in societal purpose. In fact, 80 percent of CEOs say that demonstrating a purpose-driven commitment to sustainability is already a differentiator in their industry.
Understanding these levels of maturity can help companies to recognize disruptive approaches, refocus strategies, innovate to solve global challenges, and leapfrog to high performance.
Hover over each point on the maturity curve to learn the key takeaways of the different stages in achieving sustainable value.
The digital world is raising the bar for business, cultivating radical transparency and empowering consumers. Business leaders no longer answer only to investors and shareholders. A large majority (79 percent) of CEOs say that brand, trust and reputation drives them to act on sustainability.
This is not surprising considering that companies’ reputations today are literally at consumers’ fingertips, and can live or die on social media. This is one reason why 81 percent of CEOs say that digital technologies are radically increasing the transparency of product lifecycles and supply chains—and nearly two-thirds (62 percent) say that digitization has made trust a top priority for the company.
Leading companies develop competitive advantage from greater transparency. The glare of the spotlight influences them to improve productivity, cut costs, secure trust with local stakeholders, and build customer loyalty.
Transparency is also encouraging business leaders to focus on the social value of sustainability. To achieve the SDGs, it is essential for value to expand beyond the confines of traditional investor expectations to recognize and value broader societal impact. The social dynamics of competitiveness are front and center as CEOs make systemic changes to embed core purpose into the heart of business.
The UN Global Compact—Accenture Strategy CEO Study represents more than a decade of research on sustainable business. Published every three years, this is the largest study of CEO attitudes to sustainability globally.
The Study includes in-depth conversations with the world’s leading CEOs—with more than 250 engaged through one-to-one interviews since 2007—and a survey covering UN Global Compact participant companies of all sizes across more than 150 countries and 30 industry sectors. The Study traces the development of corporate motivations in engaging with environmental, social and governance issues in core business.
In 2016—the largest CEO Study to date—over 1,000 survey responses were received, and one-to-one interviews were conducted with more than 50 CEOs of leading innovators.