New Research Discovers Organizations Can Stand Out as Sustainability Leaders When They Apply Specific Business Practices

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The Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report – sponsored by the Project Management Institute Brightline® Initiative – explores what drives organizations to implement sustainability strategies, how they do it best, and the benefits they see 

According to new research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services – and sponsored by the Project Management Institute (PMI) Brightline® Initiative – how and why an organization implements its sustainability strategy can make the difference between it being a leader in sustainability conversations or falling behind. The new report, “Driving Sustainability Strategy Home: Effective Practices That Take Businesses’ Impact Beyond Profit,” analyzes the business practices and decisions organizations can adopt to help them see the impact of sustainability strategy investments.

Major environmental issues and increased consumer demand for responsibility have made it harder for organizations to ignore the need for sustainability strategies. More organizations see value and impact in implementing sustainable practices, and AI's rapid progress brings much promise to innovation. Despite these developments, many organizations still face difficulties in successfully implementing their sustainability strategies.

“Around the world, we continue to face challenges related to climate change, social inequities, and resource scarcity,” said Pierre Le Manh, PMP, President & Chief Executive Officer of PMI. “Organizations that ignore these realities will find themselves vulnerable to disruptions, regulatory pressures, and reputational damage. Conversely, organizations that proactively embrace sustainability build resilience, secure resources, strengthen stakeholder relationships and attract top talent, ensuring their long-term survival and growth. Our latest research shows sustainability strategy must be driven by the executive level to fully realize the benefits and to create a long-term positive impact."

Leaders are Driven by Conviction, Not External Forces 
Based on where survey respondents’ organizations were in their sustainability strategy implementation, researchers categorized respondents into one of three groups: “leaders” who say their organization has effectively implemented its sustainability strategy throughout their organization; “followers” who say their organization has somewhat effectively implemented its sustainability strategy in some areas of their organization; and “laggards” who say their organization is piloting parts of its sustainability strategy on an ad hoc basis, or they have defined their strategy but have made no progress on it.

Respondents from both leaders and followers cited seeking better alignment with organizational goals, values, and overall mission as the top reason for implementing a sustainability strategy. Conversely, the top driver for laggards was customer or consumer expectations. Yet leaders also see a sustainability strategy as the right thing to do. This was the second most-cited driver among leaders, but it was not even in the top 5 driver for followers or laggards.

Leaders Empower Sustainability Leaders with Decision-Making Authority  
Seventy-one percent of leaders have put a C-suite executive in charge of sustainability strategy efforts, compared with only 63% of followers and 60% of laggards. Additionally, while 56% of leaders directly engage organization leaders to define the sustainability agenda, only 45% of followers and 29% of laggards do. Leaders also give more decision-making authority to their sustainability leaders (55% compared to 41% of followers and 30% of laggards).

All See the Power of Upskilling, But Leaders Have Already Started 
Leaders, followers, and laggards reported almost equal alignment in the need for upskilling teams to achieve the organization’s sustainability goals, yet leaders are already doing it. Almost two-thirds of leaders (65%) say their organization has launched internal training programs in sustainability, but less than half (47%) of followers and less than a third (31%) of laggards have implemented such programs.

Leaders See More Benefits 
The top 3 cited benefits for leaders were an improved company reputation (72%), improved organizational culture (69%), and heightened employee engagement (59%). Laggards experienced these benefits less – 48% saw improved company reputation, 37% saw improved organizational culture, and 34% saw heightened employee engagement. Despite customer or consumer expectations being their top driver for laggards to implement sustainability strategies, only 25% of laggards saw an increase in customer loyalty and retention whereas 46% of leaders saw an increase.

To read the report in its entirety, visit brightline.org/resources/driving-sustainability-strategy-home.

About the PMI Brightline® Initiative

Brightline® is a Project Management Institute (PMI) initiative together with leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery. Brightline delivers insights and solutions that empower leaders to successfully transform their organization’s vision into reality through strategic initiative management.

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Project Management Institute, PMI, and BRIGHTLINE are registered trademarks of Project Management Institute, Inc. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

About Harvard Business Review Analytic Services

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services is an independent commercial research unit within Harvard Business Review Group, conducting research and comparative analysis on important management challenges and emerging business opportunities. Seeking to provide business intelligence and peer-group insight, each report is published based on the findings of original quantitative and/or qualitative research and analysis. Quantitative surveys are conducted with the HBR Advisory Council, HBR’s global research panel, and qualitative research is conducted with senior business executives and subject matter experts from within and beyond the Harvard Business Review author community. Email us at [email protected].

About Project Management Institute (PMI)

PMI is the leading authority in project management, committed to advancing the project management profession to positively impact project success. We empower professionals to excel in project management practices through our growing global community, knowledge sharing, and best-in-class certifications—driving positive change in organizations and communities. Since 1969, our unwavering mission has been to advocate for the profession by offering life-long learning and connections to sharpen high-demand skills. Today, PMI provides professionals at every stage of their career journey with the globally recognized standards, online courses, thought leadership, events, and tools they need to succeed. With more than 300 chapters around the world, PMI members can network, find mentors, access career opportunities, and learn from peers, working together to drive greater impact.

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Project Management Institute, PMI, and BRIGHTLINE are registered trademarks of Project Management Institute, Inc. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

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