The Economy: Can Sustainability Survive the Recession?

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We’ve known for some time that corporate sustainability is a hot topic. During the late boom, companies of all sizes and types hastened to present themselves to consumers, policymakers, and industry partners as green, sensitive to the environment, concerned about global warming, and generally good citizens. NEWSWEEK’s Green Rankings represents one attempt to quantify and classify large corporations’ efforts.

There was a degree to which such efforts were something of a luxury item. Frequently, budgets for sustainability efforts were housed in the same corporate silos as public relations, marketing, and advertising – areas that are frequently cut in periods of frenzied cost-cutting. Cynics argued that many of the efforts were more about image than operations. And so there was concern that any economic downturn would put a crimp in sustainability efforts. Last year offered something of test for this hypothesis, since 2009 was the first year since 1944 in which the global economy contracted.

But a new survey, released today by Accenture and the United Nations Global Compact, suggests that sustainability powered through the global recession. The online survey of 766 CEOs around the world, including the head honchos of giants like Unilever, HSBC, and Alcoa found that 93 percent regard sustainability as important to their companies’ future success. What’s more, in some of the industries hardest hit in the downturn, such as automobiles and banking, “belief in sustainability is universal.” In addition, 78 percent said that the experience of the contraction has made them regard sustainability as more important. To a degree, corporations are catering to their customers. Seventy two percent of CEOS cited “brand, trust and reputation” as a primary motivator for sustainability efforts.

The survey indicates that sustainability is becoming mainstream. This year, 81 percent of CEOs said that sustainability issues had become a component of their operations, up from 50 percent in 2007. The survey highlights in aggregate what many companies have found as individuals. Corporations come to sustainability for the image and p.r. boost it gives, but they stay for the money it can make them. It’s not just about pitching products to green consumers, Although 58 percent of the CEOs surveyed said consumers are the stakeholders with the greatest impact on sustainability efforts. Rather, at its root, sustainability is about the ultimate corporate goal: efficiency. At a time when the top line isn’t growing much, companies have been ruthless about managing costs. And using fewer resources and less energy in daily operations can be a huge money-saver. It turns out that there’s a lot of green in going green.