skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

December 2018 – In a period of urgent environmental and social challenges, it's clear that business as usual cannot deliver the required response at the pace and scale required to achieve a positive impact. This working paper highlights the challenges and opportunities faced by businesses during periods of change, outlining the leadership required to deliver positive actions.

Read the working paper.

Publication date

December 2018

future of sustainable businessBackground

In recent years, businesses have faced significant changes driven by new technologies as well as innovations in business models, products and processes. At the same time, there are pressing social and environmental challenges affecting both the stability and the wellbeing of entire regions, sectors and communities; this, in turn, is reshaping the expectations of consumers, investors and governments. There is a growing public expectation that business will take a lead and deliver a response to many of these challenges. It is clear, however, that business as usual and leadership as usual will not achieve change at the pace and scale required for these new challenges and expectations, nor will they achieve the outcomes of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the Paris Climate Agreement.


The leadership required from business must go beyond bolt-on approaches to sustainability. Instead, business should:

  • align organisational purpose, strategy and business models with system-level change
  • set evidence-based targets, measure outcomes and be transparent
  • embed sustainability into organisational practices and decisions
  • engage, collaborate and advocate for transformational change.

These four critical tasks for business are among the ten set out in Rewiring the Economy, the CISL report which lays out our ten-year plan for a sustainable economy and proposes the changes required of business leadership, policymakers, and finance leaders. Following a survey of sustainability leaders in our network, three of these tasks were identified as ones which would benefit from further exploration in peer-group discussions. CISL organised a round table event to which 30 sustainability leaders from our network attended to discuss the future of sustainable business.

This paper offers insights into the new models of thinking that arose from those discussions, as well as the challenges and opportunities identified by the range of companies involved. In all participants, there was a common desire to set a positive course for the future of sustainable business.


‘The future of sustainable business: Reflections from 30 sustainability leaders’, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Working Paper 01/2018

Visit our leadership hub and learn more about how we can help your company lead change towards a sustainable economy. 

About our working papers

Working papers are circulated for discussion purposes only. Their contents should be considered preliminary and are not to be quoted without the authors' permission. All views expressed are those of the author.