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Most CEOs don’t understand sustainability, says John Elkington, Volans Ventures

By Ahona Ghosh | 29 January 2013

Why do companies use the language of sustainability, but fail to practice it?

Many companies use the sustainability language due to peer pressure. In 2010, the UN Global Compact group of companies published a report by Accenture, polling 766 CEOs around the world. About 92% said, “sustainability is now important to our company”.

What quickly became clear is that they understood sustainability very differently than us. They understood it as reporting, having a chief sustainability officer, understanding problems around the supply chain—88% said they would drive it through their supply chains. What really worried me was that 81% said, “we have already embedded sustainability in our organisation”. That was the moment I realised they don’t really understand what this is about. They don’t understand the nature and scale of the climate issue, water issue, natural resources issue, poverty and all these things. They are seeing it as efficiency issues and transparency.

They are doing a lot compared to what companies were doing 25-30 years ago. But still, for most companies we deal with, it is still an incremental change agenda. Another problem is they are trying to address these issues, but they lack skills beyond their core expertise to tackle sustainability.

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Corporate Governance