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Fewer than one-third of U.S. employees surveyed reported that their organizations engaged in practices that embed sustainability goals in business models and employee roles, according to new research published in MIT Sloan Management Review.

To shed light on the state of play in embedding sustainability and to identify key bottlenecks, CB Bhattacharya of the Center for Sustainable Business at the University of Pittsburgh and Rob Jekielek of The Harris Poll collaborated on a survey of U.S. employees to find out whether their companies were taking measures to prompt employees to conduct business through the sustainability lens. The results are shared in “Sustainability Progress Is Stalled at Most Firms.”

sustainability goals
CB Bhattacharya, Director, Center for Sustainable Business and the H.J. Zoffer Chair in Sustainability and Ethics, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh

“While many companies talk the talk of sustainability, claiming to be integrating environmental and societal concerns into their business models, far fewer walk the walk: Sustainability is typically treated by most managers as someone else’s problem and relegated to a department or even a single individual,” commented Bhattacharya.

Companies that are successful in transforming their business models have endowed their employees with a sense of sustainable ownership, spurring them to engage in more sustainability-related behaviors. Yet, only 30% of employees surveyed strongly agreed with the statement “I understand how I can improve my company’s sustainability performance through my role,” with slightly fewer agreeing that “My company gives me a chance to use my personal initiative or judgment in carrying out sustainability initiatives.”

When every employee integrates environmental and social concerns into every business decision, sustainability progress is accelerated. “Sustainability Progress Is Stalled at Most Firms” identifies six key recommendations for managers to embed sustainability into organizational models and cultures:

Sustainability Goals
(Photo: Adobe Stock / Orathai)
  • Establish a purpose based on values.
  • Bake sustainability into corporate strategy.
  • Train employees and incentivize actions that advance sustainability.
  • Create a sustainability culture in your organization.
  • Conduct business through the sustainability lens.
  • Bridge the last mile.

“Small actions make a big difference,” continued Bhattacharya. “If all employees do what they can in their own spheres of influence, impact will take place.”

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