Furthermore, CEOs believe that, within a decade, a tipping point could be reached that fully meshes sustainability with core business.

These are two of the key findings of a survey of 766 CEOs around the globe – the largest such research study of CEOs ever conducted on the topic of sustainability – released today by the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture. In addition to an online survey, the study included extensive interviews with 50 of the world’s leading CEOs.

According to ‘A New Era of Sustainability: UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study 2010’, the global economic downturn did little to dampen corporate commitment to sustainability. In fact it seems to have done the opposite: 80 per cent of the CEOs say the downturn has raised the importance of sustainability. As businesses look to the upturn, CEOs also identified consumers as their most important stakeholder in recognition of the increasing demand for products and services that address sustainability concerns.

‘CEOs told us they have by necessity been on the defensive during the downturn, but that they feel now is the time to get on the front foot in aligning sustainability with core business strategy and execution’ said Mark Foster, Accenture’s group chief executive, management consulting and global markets.

However, challenges remain and execution across the breadth of the organisation is highlighted by CEOs as particularly difficult. For example, while 88 percent of CEOs believe they should be integrating sustainability through their supply chain, but only 54 percent believe this is being achieved in their company. A similar performance gap is seen for subsidiaries.

Guidance on implementation is therefore where CEOs see the most important role for the UN Global Compact. ‘Achieving greater environmental and social sustainability takes time, effort and a sincere leadership commitment,’ said Georg Kell, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact. ‘Two-thirds of the CEOs we surveyed are looking to the Global Compact as a forum for sharing best practices and emerging ideas on sustainability, and we look forward to helping guide their efforts to develop effective policies and tangible practices.’

‘It is clear from the survey results that global business has its work cut out in order to build sustainability programs that become key components of a company’s core business,’ said Peter Lacy, who led the study and is managing director, Sustainability Services at Accenture for Europe, Africa, Middle East and Latin America. ‘If sustainability does become fully integrated into global businesses within the next decade, the regulatory, technology, investment and consumer changes required will be staggering, creating significant winners and losers across businesses and industries.

‘However, it’s great to see that some progress is being made, and that the movement toward a more sustainable economy and business context is clearly gaining momentum.’