Beleaguered CEOs Say They Can't Save the Planet by Themselves

Photograph by Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images Close

Photograph by Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images

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Photograph by Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images

Chief executive officers are happier with their own companies' progress on modern environmental and social challenges than they are with everyone else's.

It's easy to laugh that off as self-aggrandizement. After all, one's own work is always harder, more important and ultimately more successful than the next guy's, right? It's why all the kids in Lake Wobegone are above average and everybody loves their local legislator but loathes the legislature.

What if the big bosses also might be on to something, beyond self-confidence? Here are some key results from the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture's third triennial CEO Study on Sustainability. More than 1,000 CEOs responded, making it the largest such survey ever:

  • 85 percent say governments need to provide policy that allows them to invest in less-polluting, less-wasteful infrastructure without fear of losing ground to penny-pinching or less high-minded competitors.
  • Only 12 percent say investors are pushing them to reduce risks to their businesses from any of myriad potential risks -- social unrest, resource scarcity, weather-related supply chain disruption and so on.
  • Only 33 percent think business writ-large is doing enough to address contemporary challenges, while 76 percent were happy with their own companies.

Consequently, 32 percent think the economy is on track to be able to provide for the global middle class explosion, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects to grow from 1.8 billion people in 2010 to 4.9 billion in 2050.

Corporate sustainability leaders have accomplished impressive results since the UNGC and Accenture first conducted their study in 2007. Fuzzy aspiration in the first survey transformed into demonstrative operational change in 2010, by which point Wal-Mart, for example, had increased its fleet's fuel efficiency 25 percent and begun to build new stores that emit up to 30 percent less carbon dioxide. The new survey, released this morning, depicts CEOs growing impatient. They emphasize their continued commitments to sustainability but are frustrated by their lack of help from markets, government and the rest of what might be called, for lack of a better phrase, "the system."

Consider this. The phrase "environmental movement" is still tossed around quite a bit, a remnant of the powerful ecological campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. Now it refers to the archipelago of environmental advocacy organizations that have matured since then . Yet these organizations spend an awful lot of time helping companies transform themselves. You'd be forgiven for thinking they're management consultants, though unlike management consultants, some groups, like EDF, maintain financial independence to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

They acknowledge where the ambition is these days. If there's an environmental movement in the 2000s, it's not in the streets. It's in the boardrooms.

“If you’re able to develop tools that are practical and fit with the way businesses think about problems, then they’re more likely to be taken up as solutions,” Lou Leonard, WWF’s vice president for climate change, recently told me. “And that’s what we want.”

These CEOs need help from more than the environmental archipelago. That's what they told Accenture's Peter Lacy, who interviewed more than 200 of them for the study. They need governments to stop rewarding companies who who won't or can't change with emerging environmental or social pressures on business. They need investors to stop valuing companies like there's no day after tomorrow. And they need consumers to embrace their dual role as citizens, and drive change in their communities and nations.

The message for elected officials and investors from UNGC and Accenture is clear. Keep the environmental movement strong: Give the CEOs what they need and get out of their way.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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