In the survey of experts from 64 countries, the five most urgent issues on the sustainability agenda – climate change, water scarcity, food security, poverty, and biodiversity loss – were all perceived as less urgent challenges than they were in 2009 (see chart, above left).
The survey was completed by 512 qualified sustainability experts drawn from corporate, government, non-governmental, academic/research, and consulting organizations.
SustainAbility says the decline is probably due to a combination of factors:
- Economic issues (e.g. job security, consumer confidence) have displaced environmental and social concerns at the top of the sustainability agenda. (However, the urgency around poverty and economic development also fell in the survey from 2009 to 2011.)
- Experts are beginning to accept these issues as a permanent part of our social and political landscape.
- People are frustrated with the lack of political will to enact meaningful and necessary policy changes.
- Higher-order issues (e.g. governance and transparency) are becoming even more important as precursors to effectively addressing the others (e.g. climate and biodiversity).
- The size and scale of environmental and social issues have become so overwhelming that people are shifting their focus toward issues that relate to them more personally.
- As issue become more widely known and receive more attention from business leaders and policymakers, the sense of urgency naturally dissipates.
At the same time, SustainAbility says, these problems are getting more severe, and will probably start to cause more serious consequences for business.
The challenge for business leaders in 2012 will be to avoid complacency and backsliding on their sustainability commitments in spite of this downward trend, the consultancy argues.
“This scenario is hardly unfathomable. With experts – or stakeholders, more broadly – less concerned over key issues and corporations facing less external pressure than in years past, perhaps corporate progress on the sustainability agenda will slow or grind to a halt,” manager Kyle Whitaker notes.