It’s become an all too familiar story—a passionate CEO declares sustainability a top priority and launches a comprehensive and well-resourced program, only to have it lose momentum and fall victim to other perceived priorities.  To better understand the roadblocks that even well-intentioned sustainability efforts face and how leading companies overcome them, Bain & Company conducted a survey of more than 300 companies engaged in such transformations. Included in those interviews were the heads of sustainability at companies that have been recognized for their results, such as Nestlé, Novozymes, and Coca-Cola. 

The resulting report, Achieving Breakthrough Results in Sustainability, provides sobering statistics and a path forward.  The study revealed that only 2% of corporate sustainability programs achieved or exceeded aims, compared with 12% of other corporate transformation programs. The findings concluded that C-Suite passion often gets stuck at the top as enthusiastic leaders overlook the difficulty that frontline employees confront when they feel they must choose between sustainability and business targets.  Many employees do not see sustainability as a business imperative and deprioritize sustainability efforts because of perceived business trade-offs and the absence of incentives.  

The study offers four guidelines to help beat the odds and move companies towards authentic and lasting change.  

1.    Make a public commitment: This creates a shared sense of mission and helps stay the course during difficult times. The sustainability leaders in the study agreed: the benefits of a public declaration far outweigh the risks.

2.    CEO’s lead by example: Senior leadership support was reported to be the most important factor in transformational programs with visible actions being more important than just words.  This leadership commitment creates a “lift-off” energy and regenerates momentum throughout the journey.

3.    Highlight the business case:  The sustainability leaders interviewed report helping their employees understand how the business case links sustainable products and processes with success (and there’s no shortage of evidence for this!).

4.    Hardwire change through incentives and processes: These high performing companies make line managers responsible for delivering results, by embedding sustainability behavior and processes throughout the company.  For example, a capital improvement process may be redesigned to include sustainability factors or time horizons for business investments may be increased to allow more investments to qualify.

The time and commitment required to create transformative sustainability programs is significant, but companies that succeed say it’s worth the effort.  The leaders interviewed in this study point out proven benefits such as invigorated core business; bolstered consumer value proposition; a secured supply of key resources; decreased operational costs, and increased employee satisfaction.  These organizations overcame institutional inertia by changing mindsets and processes, demonstrating that sustainability and good business go together and beating the odds.