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A Global Perspective on Business Challenges for Sustainability

Insights from the NBS Challenges Survey help to inform our understanding of top sustainability issues.

How do business sustainability challenges vary across the world? With your help, NBS investigated this question. This spring, NBS released its annual report on Business Challenges for Sustainability. In the report, Canadian sustainability leaders identified and ranked the top sustainability issues facing Canadian business, from climate change to consumer education. NBS then asked the global NBS community to rate the issues found in the report through an online survey. How important are these challenges to their businesses? The NBS community responded. We received survey responses from almost 100 professionals, based in Canada and 21 other countries. The result? A broader, global perspective that provides new insights and a new ranking.


The NBS community members who responded to the survey shared the sense of urgency expressed in the original report. But, these NBS community members valued issues differently — and suggested new topics for consideration. People responding to the survey identified different topics as most and least important, and saw a number of topics as equally important. The table shows the relative value assigned to issues.

What matters globally?

Most Important

Creating a Long-term Orientation is the issue on which the survey and report differed most. In the report, Canadian leaders ranked the issue last; the global survey assigned it top importance. Creating a long-term orientation is about looking beyond quarterly profits to take actions that benefit the company and society over the long-term. So why would this issue be more salient internationally? One possibility is that the Canadian leaders who ranked issues in the report saw climate change, which they ranked #1, as the most important long-term issue.

Least Important

The global survey put less priority on Respecting Aboriginal Rights, which fell from 3rd place in the report to 7th in the survey.

Respecting Aboriginal rights is about developing collaborative processes and institutional structures that ensure that Aboriginal communities are proactively, freely, and comprehensively engaged in managing natural resources that impact their lands. Why the lack of significance in the broader survey? It’s possible that those responding to the survey are less involved in the natural resource issues that often affect Aboriginal communities. The question’s wording may also be confusing. In Canada, descendants of the original inhabitants of North America are called Aboriginal peoples.[1] Indigenous communities in other regions use other terms.

All Important

While the report provides a clear ranking of issues, people responding to the survey saw many issues as almost equally important. The report is based on Canadian leaders’ rankings of issues, but the survey asked people to rate the issues on a 7-point scale. As a result, people responding to the survey could assign similar significance to a number of issues. Those responding to the survey gave similar ratings to Sustaining Sustainability Programs, Measuring and Reporting Sustainability, Educating Consumers for Responsibility, and Collaboration for Sustainability. Why might these topics be valued similarly? One possibility is that they are interlinked. Making progress on one may inevitably involve working on the others. In comments, NBS community members described the importance of these different issues:

Collaborating for Sustainability

Complex problems cannot be solved by one organisation, or any one group. However, businesses can act as convenors to bring together diverse players with a common interest or challenge and be the glue that helps a solution come to life.” — Deborah Lucas, Deloitte New Zealand

Measuring and Reporting

“To manage changes properly, you have to measure your efforts, by integrating sustainability activities into the whole performance measurement system, and report, at least for identified key stakeholders, in order to get the feedback.” — Lina Dagilienė, start-up entrepreneur, Lithuania

Sustaining Sustainability Programs

Developing CSR in Poland still means to me focusing on linking business goals with social and environmental ones. As long as this way of thinking isn’t incorporated in business strategy, we can’t say ‘real CSR’ or ‘mature CSR.” — Agata Gruszecka-Tieśluk, Knowledge Manager, Responsible Business Forum, Poland

Educating Consumers

“My brother and I built our fine jewellery business, !Xam Diamonds to bring high quality, socially responsible and sustainable diamonds from mine to finger. A challenge we currently face is demonstrating the value and importance of sustainable mining to customers.” — Terry Brenner, Co-founder, !Xam Diamonds, Canada

New Themes

Respondents also flagged additional topics affecting their organizations:


NBS community members called for sustainability engagement by executives, the Board, and decision makers generally. Brent Corcoran, an environmental manager in South Africa, wrote: “An organisation’s executives must empower and enable our senior management and middle management team to ensure sustainability is owned by all, and implemented in all operational systems and practices.” Leadership is tightly linked to Sustaining Sustainability Programs, which emphasizes cross-company engagement. Practitioners looking for leadership insights should stay tuned for the NBS-SA report on CEO Decision-Making launching in May 2016. Other community members raised diverse challenges, including:

Supply Chains

“Adopting sustainable procurement practices that promote visibility through supply chains is essential if we are to insert influence in the right area.” — Martin Fryer, Sustainability Manager, Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Business Case

“Finding viable ways to make the case for sustainability as a priority, showing the ROI for stakeholders. Budget allocation. Resource allocation. Time allocation. All of those must be substantiated.” — Jessica Pelchat, Office Coffee Solutions, Canada

Information Technology

Information technology (IT) can be an enabler of sustainability challenges. Well governed and managed enterprise IT can, for example, improve measurement, monitoring and evaluation systems.” — Graciela Braga, CPA, CGEIT, Assessor, Argentina

Next Steps

First off, we at NBS would like to extend our thanks to all who responded to the survey. We learned an incredible amount from those who shared how they perceived these challenges. We invite you to use these insights in conjunction with the Business Challenges for Sustainability report to inform your understanding of top sustainability issues facing businesses.

In the near-term, stay tuned for research insights on Creating a Long-term Orientation (rated the top challenge by NBS subscribers) as well as the NBS-SA report on CEO Decision-Making, which directly address leadership (an additional issue raised by NBS subscribers). In the next years, NBS will form micro-communities of researchers and practitioners to tackle sustainability challenges like those contained in this report. We hope you will stay with us on this journey.

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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