by Michael Connor

Executives responsible for sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs at large companies are overwhelmingly optimistic that those initiatives will be part of the “core strategies and operations” of global businesses in the next five years, according to a new survey.

Sustainability_Palm w Coins_FeatureTop sustainability and CSR priorities for those companies in the year ahead, the survey found, were human rights and workers’ rights, climate change, and the availability and quality of water on a global basis.

The survey was based on data from 498 professionals representing more than 300 member companies of BSR, a non-profit global membership and consulting organization that focuses on CSR and sustainability issues; some two-thirds of BSR members are large firms with annual revenue of $1 billion or more.  The results were released in San Francisco at the organization’s annual conference, with about 1,000 participants from more than 30 countries in attendance.

Despite a poor economy, large global businesses “are maintaining, if not extending, their commitments to sustainability,” said BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer.  According to Cramer, corporate managers are concluding that sustainability initiatives help cut costs and save money, particularly in environmental programs; drive “innovation” of new products and business models; and help to “future-proof” overall corporate strategy.

Executives polled in the survey said their biggest current leadership challenge is the integration of sustainability into core business functions.  While more than two-thirds reported that their companies’ communications functions (corporate communications and public affairs) were engaged in CSR/sustainability, far fewer reported engagement by critical operational functions such as investor relations (38%), human resources (37%) and finance (18%).

According to the survey, executives continue to acknowledge that the public does not have a high degree of trust in business, with only 2% sensing “a great deal of trust” from the public. To improve that situation, executives said, the two most important actions their companies should take are to “increase transparency of business practices” (55%) and “measure and demonstrate positive social and environmental impacts” (51%).

Among top subject area priorities, the survey found “a sizeable increase” in interest around water availability and quality over the past 12 months, with 54 percent noting it as a priority, up from 47 percent last year.  Other top priorities were human rights (65%), climate change (63%) and workers’ rights (61%).  BSR’s Mr. Cramer said increased interest in human rights and worker’s rights this year may have been driven by the release in July of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

When asked to “rate your outlook regarding the extent to which global businesses will embrace CSR/sustainability as part of their core strategies and operations in the next five years,” 22 percent of the executives said they were “very optimistic” and 62 percent “somewhat optimistic” that would happen.