Eighty-seven percent of chief executive officers (CEOs) say the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent an essential opportunity to rethink approaches to sustainability, and nearly half (49 percent) say businesses will be the most important actor in their delivery, according to a new study by the UN Global Compact and Accenture.

Launched at the 2016 UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in New York, the study, undertaken by Accenture Strategy and titled The United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy CEO Study 2016, Agenda 2030: A Window of Opportunity, finds business leaders accepting a mandate to take the lead in solving societal challenges. The survey of more than 1,000 CEOs, who are already committed to sustainability through their participation in the UN Global Compact, shows that they now see a unique opportunity to reshape their industries and accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

“The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals gives companies a clear and universal roadmap to make global goals, local business,” said Lise Kingo, Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact. “CEOs are accepting a mandate for radical action, and see a window of opportunity for transformation. At the UN Global Compact, we will engage businesses globally with governments and civil society on the SDGs, aiming to unleash the full potential of the private sector to reshape the global economy and deliver the world we want by 2030.”

More than 70 percent of the UN Global Compact CEOs surveyed believe that the SDGs provide business with a framework to restructure sustainability efforts, and 78 percent already see opportunities to contribute to the global goals through their core business. Nearly all (95 percent) feel a personal responsibility to ensure their company has a core purpose and role in society, and 80 percent believe that demonstrating a commitment to societal purpose is a differentiator in their industry.

“As globalization and digital disruption raise the bar for business, CEOs around the world are embracing the opportunity to transform how we live, work and play. They see the need to reshape approaches and business models to support a responsible and sustainable global economy,” said Peter Lacy, managing director, Accenture Strategy. “These CEOs acknowledge digital technologies will play a key part in this transformation, redefining competitiveness in many industries. Managed in the interests of both business and society, digital advances make it possible to unleash radical innovation to create value and deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”

In fact, three-quarters of CEOs (75 percent) report that digital technologies enable more sustainable business models such as the circular economy.

To accelerate progress, CEOs identify three critical requirements. First, an urgent need to expand coalitions and partnerships across business, government and civil society to drive greater ambition and achievement on key sustainability issues, including human rights, labor standards, the environment, and anti-corruption. Second, more action at the local level, working with national governments to develop and implement action plans to achieve the SDGs. And third, innovation in new digital technologies and new business models that can enable business to have a greater impact on global challenges.

Making global goals, local business
This year’s results mark a sea change from the results of the 2013 CEO Study, when respondents expressed a sense of frustrated ambition in their efforts to become more sustainable. Although CEOs emphasize the need to overcome significant challenges, the study finds business leaders making progress in embedding sustainability across their business.

More than two-thirds of the UN Global Compact CEOs surveyed (69 percent) report that sustainability issues are already part of board-level discussions, and 64 percent say these issues play a central role in their strategic planning and business development. A majority of CEOs (59 percent) also report that their company can accurately quantify the business value of their sustainability initiatives, up from 38 percent in 2013. Looking beyond their own companies, the CEOs say progress is being replicated across their industries, and 89 percent say commitment to sustainability is translating into a real impact on their industry.

Reshaping global markets
Despite strong progress in embedding sustainability into corporate strategy and operations, executives still see significant challenges in bringing about the changes that can reshape global markets for sustainability. In particular, business leaders find it difficult to align market incentives to accelerate action. While 88 percent of CEOs believe that greater integration of sustainability issues will be essential to make progress on sustainability, just 10 percent say investor pressure is a top factor driving action in their company.

Among CEOs of the world’s largest companies, those with annual revenues in excess of US$1 billion, commitment and action is even more pronounced with 76 percent of them already engaging investors on the value of sustainability to their business. Similarly, 80 percent believe they have the skills and capabilities to take action on the SDGs.

As CEOs prioritize critical actions to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs, 86 percent of them say standardized metrics are needed so companies can measure and track their impact on global goals; and 85 percent identify the importance of partnerships with governments, NGOs and international organizations that connect businesses with local communities. Similarly, 84 percent call for more local collaboration with national governments on SDG Action Plans that include clear incentives and accountability frameworks for business.

The UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study represents more than a decade of research on sustainable business. The study includes in-depth conversations with the world’s leading CEOs, 250 of which have participated in one-to-one interviews since 2007, and a survey of UN Global Compact participant companies across more than 150 countries and 30 industry sectors. The study traces the development of corporate motivations in engaging with environmental, social and governance issues in their core business. In 2016, more than 1,250 survey responses were received across business, academia, civil society and NGOs, including 1,012 CEOs of UN Global Compact participant companies in 108 countries and across 26 industries. In-depth interviews were conducted with more than 50 CEOs, including those of the world’s largest companies.