Growing budgets for action on environmental and social issues and the leadership role of senior executives are among the key findings in new research from the sustainability activator, Anthesis. But respondents still think that companies and organisations should be acting faster.
The annual Emerging Trends research shines a light on attitudes to sustainability in businesses and public sector organisations around the world.
The 2019 survey asked how important 25 key sustainability issues were for businesses and organisations, allowing year-on-year comparison to 2018’s inaugural survey. The newly expanded survey also added questions about sustainability budgets, the role of technologies, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), leadership roles and the pace of change.
As we enter what many are calling the decisive decade for sustainability, a report in The Times prepared with Anthesis pulls in statistics from the Emerging Trends report to look at how businesses are making sustainability happen.
Rising Sustainability Budgets
In a result that suggests a recognition of the importance and necessity of sustainability, an impressive 92 percent of respondents confirmed that sustainability budgets at their organisation had either risen or stayed the same in the two years to 2019, with a greater percentage declaring an increase.
Forty-four percent of respondents said that sustainability budgets had stayed the same, while almost half, 48 percent, reported rising budgets. Breaking it down further, 27 percent of respondents highlighted significant budget increases of more than ten percent, while increases of up to ten percent were reported by a further 21 percent of respondents.
Roles and Responsibilities
The survey also looked at what roles people are playing with regard to sustainability. Respondents were asked to consider roles in their organisation such as chief executive, chief financial officer and chief technology officer and say whether their responsibility was primarily advisory, operational or ownership.
Forty-seven percent of respondents identified chief executives and managing directors as the roles with ownership responsibility for environmental and social issues. Heads of finance, marketing and legal were meanwhile ranked as important advisors on sustainability.
Sustainability Needs Quicker Action
Despite the generally positive news on budgets and roles, over three-quarters of respondents, 76 percent, said that action on sustainability either was not happening fast enough or was happening only somewhat quickly enough. Even among respondents who had seen sustainability budgets rise at their organisation, less than a third, 29 percent, felt that action was happening quickly enough.
Anthesis’ Chief Executive, Stuart McLachlan, said: “The debate around sustainability has exploded in the last few years, with its significance now justifiably reflected across budgets and in the boardroom.
“Our research aims to provide peer-level insights into environmental and social challenges and highlight new developments in technology and UN SDG adoption. While sustainability goals may differ across organisations and borders, the urgency for action remains undisputed. In this decisive decade, where sustainability needs to happen, organisations, communities and citizens alike share a common ambition of finding the best and most effective routes to turn actionable insights into scalable impact.”
Top Sustainability Challenges
The survey asked respondents to rank its 25 sustainability trends for both importance and the action taken by their organisations, revealing that importance was not always matched by action.
The trend that topped the survey for importance was the circular economy, plastics and waste minimisation. Ninety percent of respondents cited it as either very or somewhat important, moving it into the top spot from fourth in 2018. The topic also remained high on the list for action taken, ranking second and beaten only by the need to manage sustainability-related requests and queries from customers.
However, while climate change, air quality and the energy transition ranked second for importance with 85 percent saying it was very or somewhat important, worryingly it dropped to ninth for action taken.
“Sustainability will be underpinned by technology that is better informed, more connected and better integrated into our everyday lives.”
Technologies Driving Sustainability
Among the new topics in this year’s survey were the technologies that businesses and organisations think will be important in improving sustainability.
The Internet-of-Things and Automation topped the list, with 56 percent of respondents saying that these technologies will drive sustainability at their organisation now or in the next five years. Close behind was Artificial Intelligence, which half of respondents highlighted as important.
About one third of people, 32 percent, said that electric vehicles would also accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy. The same number of respondents also highlighted the role of data from satellites and drone surveys.
Anthesis Chief Technology Officer, Craig Simmons, said: “Technology and innovation is critical to answering the challenges of sustainability and our survey respondents clearly agree that delivery will be increasingly underpinned by technology that is better informed, more connected and better integrated into our everyday lives.
“Technology can make products and services more efficient throughout their life cycle. This may involve more online delivery, closed loop manufacture, more artificial intelligence or the integration of Internet-of-Things sensors to optimise the use phase. The result being reductions in energy and material use, and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.”
“We can see this emerging already with, for example, ‘smart’ buildings that can interact with the occupants and the external environment and learn from experience,” he concluded.
Over 130 senior leadership and board-level executives shared their expertise on the emerging sustainability challenges faced by today’s businesses for the survey. Of the 132 respondents, approximately one in five was from a Fortune 500 or Global 2000 organisation, with combined revenue of $828 billion. Responses were received from professionals in the private and public sectors across Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region.
It is the second year that Anthesis has produced the Emerging Trends research, which it hopes will open a window into changing attitudes towards sustainability among professionals.