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Execs Getting Complacent about Environmental Problems

A worrying trend is emerging, according to a new survey by SustainAbility and GlobeScan: sustainability experts and practitioners are not feeling the sense of urgency they once did.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Execs Getting Complacent about Environmental Problems

  1. Like so many issues related to sustainability, it seems that public awareness is at the heart of this one. If people were better able to see the connection between environmental and economic viability, and if corporate executives had a deeper understanding of the long range intelligence of integrating sustainability into their business operations, it would not be seen as an optional “add-on” which is expendable during economically challenging times. Too often, I’ve witnesses sustainability professionals gathering to share ideas among other like-minded folks. The message needs to be sent outside of these circles to make a true impact on consumer demand, which in turn would drive stakeholder accountability.

  2. Are all bulleted points true in all 64 countries included in the survey of experts? I am curious exactly which countries face the same frustration with the lack of political will to enact meaningful and necessary policy changes. Seems to me many countries – not the U.S. — are still pressing forward in developing greener profiles from both a business, cultural and political perspective. That’s what’s frustrating – to see your peers moving forward while you are stuck in a political rut. I do not blame Obama, I blame Congress, but more specifically I blame Republicans in this Congress. I encourage U.S. established business, cultural leaders and other talent/ecopreneurs to push ahead, building their own momentum. Next congressional election near you, if you have to vote Republican, find someone with the fortitude to step aside from the collective Republican brain to vote for. The current set of Republican incumbents are all behaving like a gang of bullies.

  3. The whole subject may become moot anyway. Sustainability will not be an issue that needs special attention because it will be integrated into everyday operations. For example, a food company wouldn’t be able to operate without a sustainable source for their ingredients because a non-sustainable source will not longer exist in the near future (think fish for example). So, we may not have to continue convincing companies to act…they may not have a choice.

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