Industry Market Trends

Report on Corporate Sustainability Shows that Some Companies "Get it;" But Many Still Don't

Feb 20, 2013


There were two ways for Mike Kapalko to look at the results of the 2012 Tork Report, a comprehensive corporate sustainability and hygiene survey done by his company, SCA (Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget), one of the world's leading personal health care manufacturers.

On the one hand, he was pleased to see that 64 percent of the more than 1,500 U.S. and Canadian companies, and 2,114 U.S. adults surveyed by Harris Interactive said that the company they work for had at least some sustainability plan in place at present, and was working on better plans for the future.

On the other hand, Kapalko said, it was disappointing that even though that 64 percent figure was much higher than the 38 percent of companies with sustainability plans in 2011, there were still so many corporations that were clueless about the need for sustainability practices.

"I'm sort of in the middle of feeling good and feeling bad about our results," Kapalko, the Sustainability Marketing Manager for SCA North America, told me. "I was surprised it was only 38 percent in 2011, and I was also surprised it jumped to 64 in 2012, but I'm afraid a lot of that (increased sustainability) is companies hitting the 'low-hanging fruit' of sustainability."

The 2012 Tork Report, which can be viewed in full here, is the third annual survey done by SCA, and the polling was done by Harris Interactive over the course of five weeks in the fall of 2012.

There are two parts of the survey, Kapalko explained; for one part Harris does a "consumer" survey online, a general population interview that's weighted to reflect the general population's ideas about sustainability.

The second part was a much more in-depth interview process with company managers, CEOs, or lower-level employees from 1,500 businesses across the U.S. and Canada.  Harris interviewed companies from just about every type of industry imaginable, from health organizations and financial services companies to agricultural businesses and manufacturing outfits.

While Kapalko said he could not offer a breakdown of which industries as a whole answered certain sustainability questions a certain way, he was able to provide a list of what percentage of companies surveyed were from what industries.

For example, business services and administration made up 13 percent of the overall survey, while manufacturing and construction made up five percent, health professionals and doctors accounted for five percent of respondents, and engineering companies made up three percent of the total.

"We try to be very selective and talk to people at these companies who make decisions about sustainability and are hands-on with ordering products," Kapalko said. "If we want to talk to people in education, we don't want to talk to a teacher, we want to talk to a custodian."

Some of the most intriguing results of the survey are as follows:

  • Despite recent weather-related disasters, a quarter of U.S. firms (26%) have not prepared for how environmental risks impact them or their bottom line.

"I think people in business sometimes think that weather events are not necessarily part of their sustainability plan, but to me, sustainability is something you can leverage for the good of your company," Kapalko said. "Some of this survey was taken before Superstorm Sandy, so it'll be interesting to see if the environmental preparedness changes, after the destruction that happened from Sandy."

  • 31 percent of U.S. firms and 30 percent of Canadian firms say their sustainability plans are having a positive impact on their bottom line.
  • Only 12 percent of U.S. companies and 10 percent of Canadian companies said their sustainability initiatives negatively impacted their bottom line.
  • Only 50 percent of Americans say they buy products with sustainability in mind, while 35 percent say it sometimes influences their choices.

Now the survey doesn't explain exactly what these companies are doing to achieve sustainability; some corporations like Whole Foods may have a comprehensive sustainability plan, while other companies may simply change a few lightbulbs and install a recycling bin in the office.

Kapalko said that through the results of the survey, SCA has come up with four initiatives, or plans, for moving beyond simple sustainability practices:

1. Reduce food waste. Americans waste 40 percent of the nation's food supply, the single biggest contributor to solid waste in landfills.

2. Add a universal sustainability index (USI). A USI is a guide to help businesses and consumers make smarter purchasing choices. This was deemed a good idea by three-quarters of people surveyed, while only 26 percent of respondents said they would not use such an index for making a purchasing decision.

3.  Reduce the amount of "green washing," or false claims by companies that tout a product's environmental benefits. The unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company undermines the value of product or service offerings of those who are legitimately green.

"Greenwashing is not a flat-out lie, but you could be misleading people very easily if you say something's "all-natural," and it's not," he said. "The FTC had to come out with a separate set of guidelines to ensure that you're not doing that (misleading)."

One major reason for the prevalence of greenwashing is that "the movement and demand for green products has grown way faster than the knowledge around 'green products' have been," Kapalko said.

4. Promote good health in the workplace. According to the Tork Report businesses that follow international environmental standards have employees that are 16 percent more productive than those that do not, but only 54 percent of U.S. companies say they have a wellness program for employees. Simply increasing the health and activity of employees can make a big difference in their productivity, and therefore the company's bottom line.

And in the end, that's what sustainability really comes down to: When companies see that increasing sustainability efforts makes a big difference financially, they're more willing to commit. "Once they have a reason to believe that  they're getting an ROI (return on investment) from this, and saw some results, they decided they wanted to do more things on the sustainability front," Kapalko said.