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More on business sustainability trends and sentiment

Last week I posted this note on the blog: “The major CR challenges and sentiment, a few thoughts“, which, as usual, I dashed off in a few moments before a meeting, or something else, possibly lunch.

As a follow up, as part of my desire to be a little more rigourous on the blog than sometimes in the past (despite the health warning that comes with my posts), I asked Jeff Erikson from SustainAbility, who conducted the original survey with GlobeScan, for some more info.

Here are my questions and his responses. Worth a read if you are trend-watching type, or indeed, any other type.

1) You surveyed sustainability experts and practitioners from 64 countries around the world. How were these chosen, and what proportions were companies, NGOs, think tanks, academics, government folks etc?

A: Our panel of experts has been developed from databases of SustainAbility and GlobeScan contacts. In order to be considered a
qualified respondent you must have at least three years of experience in the sustainability field. In this particular survey, 63 percent of our respondents have more than ten years of experience working on sustainability issues, and 27 percent have five to ten years of experience. So these are people that really understand the issues.

The breakdown for this survey:

Government 8%
NGO 11%
Institutional (academic/research/think tank) 27%
Corporate 19%
Service/media 30%
Other 4%

Asia 10%
Africa / Middle East 6%
Europe 36%
North America 30%
Australia / New Zealand 11%
Latin America / Caribbean 7%

2) You suggest that: “…the urgency of top issues has declined since 2009 due to a combination of factors”. I have suggested on the my blog that: The financial and political crisis around structural reform of debt is almost exclusively to blame here. This is alongside climate change becoming a political potato too hot for even the Democrats to touch in the US a year out from an election.

What did I miss here?

A: There were a couple of reasons we weren’t convinced that the financial crisis was the sole driver of the lower numbers. First, the respondents are, as I said, a well-informed bunch. They understand better than the general public what the implications of leaving these issues unaddressed are.

So I don’t think they are as swayed by the current economic situation. And second, if the financial crisis was the sole cause, we would have expected a higher rating for “economic development” in the general question on urgency, and “economic issues” to be rated higher in the open-ended question on most urgent SD challenges in your country over the next year.

So we went looking beyond the obvious cause of the lower numbers, and we think there are some other factors at play. But let’s not overstate the decline: 81% rated climate change as urgent or very urgent, 79% said the same for water scarcity. There remains a very strong consensus that we need to act quickly to address the big problems.

3) I’d love to hear of a country that has a really pro-active national water strategy and works with companies and business on supply security. Can you name one?

A: Because water is such a local issue, much of the action on developing sustainable supplies is at the local or state/province level. Singapore has been held up as addressing their water challenge in a collaborative and forward-looking way. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on in China, and much of it goes beyond local management, to include building cross-regional water supply pipelines, imposing strict water efficiency standards, developing water trading schemes and in some cases limiting what industries can go where based on the water supply outlook.

Our friends at Circle of Blue wrote a series of articles earlier this year titled Choke Point: China which describe the challenges and
attempts at solutions in that country.

4) The survey results say that: “According to experts, no sector is managing the transition to sustainable development effectively; all 17 sectors are perceived as net negative”. Would it be correct to argue that right now all we have is a few leading companies in each sector really pushing the boundaries. Then a following of other large companies, then everyone else…

A: Yes, I think that is an accurate way to describe where we are now. But even those leading companies sometimes struggle to get beyond consistent but incremental improvement, doing a bit less harm per unit of output, but not moving towards a sustainable business model.

It’s no accident that three of the four industries rated highest by our experts – information technology, life sciences/biotech, and telecommunications – are creating products that enable their customers to reduce their impacts, and in some cases changing the economic paradigm.

But the vast majority of business still has a long way to go to integrate sustainability principles into their business processes in a meaningful way. And by the way, public policy has a key role in getting that critical mass of companies moving, not just in regulating to set the floor of performance, but also providing price signals which make it easier for companies to act with their own long-term interests, as well as society’s, in mind.

5) You say that: “Experts say the electronics and chemical sectors’ ability to manage the transition to sustainability has deteriorated most since 2000” Do we know more as to why from the survey, and could you offer a view?

A: There is a group of industries which fared worst in the survey: mining, oil/gas, alcoholic beverage, electronics, pharma, automotive, chemicals and banking. As I look across this list I see industries which have not succeeded at addressing their most material sustainability challenges: for oil/gas it’s climate change, for alcohol its underage drinking and drunk driving, for pharma it’s access to medicine, etc.

Both the electronics and the chemical sectors have lots of issues around the life-cycle impacts of their materials – from sourcing to disposal. I think perhaps the reason they have seen the greatest deterioration in support from experts is that the expectation
for improvement in these sectors has been largely unrealized.

My original ramblings from last week, and a link to the survey results themselves, are/is here.