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Accelerating sustainable transformation


In brief

  • Business leaders are holding back from fully committing to sustainability because of perceived trade-offs with profitability.
  • Executives have concerns around the speed and reliability of sustainable business — but associate 'business as usual' with being complex and costly.
  • Scaling sustainability requires three updates to the traditional business case, covering goal setting, timelines and success parameters.


Reinventing for sustainable value

Sustainability is a growing force for change. But while executives recognize its potential to shape business reinvention, they believe there is a trade-off with profitability. This reinforces today’s narrow focus on short-term financial results.

This makes it more difficult to justify integrating considerations of environmental and social impact into corporate decision-making.

Is the perceived trade-off between sustainability and profitability a material concern – or just a myth?

Business leaders are conflicted. 98% of CEOs believe it is their role to make their businesses more sustainable, but 58% see sustainability locked in conflict with growth.

Dispelling the myths: When headwinds become tailwinds

Working with 140 World Economic Forum next-gen leaders, we identified five headwinds stopping organizations from embedding sustainability – complexity, cost, speed, reliability and practicality.

We tested these with 280 senior executives—the results: They associate pursuing sustainability with being relatively slow and more unreliable, but see sticking to ‘business as usual’ as more complex and more costly. This creates tailwinds that strengthen the case for sustainable transformation.

Organizations face headwinds like speed and risk on the journey to becoming a sustainable business – but complexity and cost tailwinds are even stronger.

Building a sustainable business case requires evolution, not revolution

Next-gen leaders call for three updates to the traditional business case to integrate environmental and social impact into corporate decision-making:

  • Pervasive Purpose: make sustainability more human, then determine how to do so profitably.
  • Extended Horizons: consider the viability of the business over the long-term and allow new sustainability initiatives time to scale.
  • 360° Value: broaden the definition of business success and collaborate across your ecosystem.

Shaping responsible leadership

Developing the leaders and organizations we need for sustainable impact

How open are seasoned business executives to adopting these new rules?

Our research shows that 70% of executives agree with the next-gen leaders. Yet, they say that traditional decision-making norms, like minimizing costs and delivering strong quarterly returns, remain critical. 67% view these as still being important for developing sustainable business models.

Fusing these three new decision-making criteria into the traditional business case emerges as the key to unlocking sustainable value at scale.

Embed sustainability at scale with new technologies

If the updated business case is the compass for sustainable transformation—tech and talent combine to form the engine.

Companies should start by building a strong digital core: a continuous process which leverages cloud to incorporate new technologies across three interoperable layers: infrastructure and security, data and AI, applications and platforms.

These tech-powered capabilities have the potential to unleash waves of sustainable innovation by reducing fear of failure and shortening 'time to value'.

Technology accelerates sustainability


Cloud computing: Bring supplier data closer to the organization, giving leaders a much deeper understanding of ESG impact across the value chain.


Data analytics: Find relevant patterns in data; for example, linking greater diversity with innovation, employee engagement or improved customer satisfaction.


Digital twins: Use twins to monitor and reduce operations such as industrial waste and water usage, improving resource efficiency.


Digital platforms: Incentivize customers to record their use and disposal of products. Leverage data to measure and track impact, and to inform product improvements.


Immersive technologies: Help communities understand benefits of infrastructure projects. e.g. virtual reality that shows an area once the construction work is complete.


Smart contracts: Boost accountability in downstream processes such as recycling management.

The power of talent and culture

Technology, however, is only one part of the puzzle.

Companies must embed sustainability into how they innovate by creating a culture in which people are empowered – even expected – to become sustainable innovators. They must build capabilities, such as a more precise understanding of challenges, bringing diverse collaborators together and more immersive prototyping. This requires helping their people adopt new processes, technologies and ways of working.

How to accelerate your sustainability transformation

Updating your decision-making norms and investing in new technologies provides a blueprint for change. We advocate a three-step process outlining how organizations can profitably embed sustainability:

  • Understand: Develop a roadmap to profitable change.
  • Unlock: Invest in tech to realize your goals at scale and speed.
  • Unleash: Focus your talent strategy on building new capabilities.


Debra McCormack

Global Board Effectiveness and Sustainability Lead

Dominic King

Research Lead – UK & Ireland

Cyrus Suntook

Senior Manager – Strategy & Consulting, Sustainability