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Survey: Business Leaders Are Surprised That Sustainability Actually Pays Off

In a new survey, seventy-two percent of executives said the benefits of their company's sustainability initiatives exceeded their expectations.

It pays to conserve. That's the finding of a survey of 247 executives in the U.S., U.K. and China released by the consulting firm Accenture. Seventy-two percent of them said the benefits of their company's sustainability initiatives exceeded their expectations.

We don't know how low those expectations were. Swapping out your incandescent bulbs at the warehouse is one thing, reducing your waste stream is another—which, by the way, can cut your landfill costs by a quarter million a year, to $10,000, if you do it right.

Still, this sampling of average businesses is instructive on the thinking taking place in C-suites. "It's clear that sustainability is no longer merely a matter of compliance," said Bruno Berthon, managing director of Accenture Sustainability Services. Most corporate leaders know sustainability can pay off, but about a third still think it's not important according to the survey. In fact, the same percentage of the executives think business is doing too much, 28 percent, as doing too little to make practices sustainable, 26 percent. Overall, the impression from average business leaders in the survey say being a sustainable business costs "a little more."

The most helpful piece of information from this survey, though, might be the information about what motivates sustainability shifts. The top two drivers, according to these execs, were investor pressure and regulation. Consumer pressure matters, but not as much as the pocketbook and the law.

Not surprisingly, opinions on whether greening a business was going to pay off financially closely mirrored the actual adoption of green initiatives. The bosses who aren't doing anything to increase sustainability were way more likely to say it doesn't pay. That may be because they're just unconvinced, but they may also be in industries where, frankly, it doesn't boost the bottom line, even if it does help society.

That's were measurement comes in. The profits from sustainability need to be as accurately measured as profits from pollution. "Measuring sustainability performance and results is the first practical step business leaders need to make, but requires new skills and proven methodologies," Berthon says.

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