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For around 60 percent of companies, sustainability is an important driver for changing their business models. It is also clear that the more fundamental the change in companies, the greater the importance of sustainability for them. Sustainability is not an end in itself: economic interests are at the forefront of the change processes.  

Contact Person

Foto Jakob Christof Kunzlmann
Jakob Christof Kunzlmann
Senior Expert
Foto Fritz Putzhammer
Fritz Putzhammer
Project Manager


More than 60 percent of German companies are starting the transformation at the core of their business model by redesigning their products and services with an ecological focus. Improving material cycles, for example through recycling, is almost as important. This is the result of a representative survey of 500 managing directors and sustainability officers of German companies conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in collaboration with the ESCP Business School.  

The potential for transformation towards greater sustainability in the German economy is huge. 70 percent of companies still see untapped opportunities to further develop individual activities, and almost every second company even sees the chance to change their entire business model. "The transformation of companies and the increasing consideration of sustainability go hand in hand. Germany's business models have a large transformation reserve. They should be able to contribute to sustainable value creation in the future," says Florian Lüdeke-Freund, Professor of Corporate Sustainability at the ESCP Business School. 

The role of politics is ambivalent

The connection between change and sustainability can be statistically proven. Companies are well advised to directly link their business and sustainability potential. Conversely, this means that any company that does not change or transform itself sustainably is ignoring the positive correlation between corporate development and sustainability and is missing out on future opportunities. 

The respondents were ambivalent about the role of politics. Almost half of the companies perceived past policies as an obstacle. Looking ahead, they hope for reliable framework conditions: more than 83 percent of companies see a decisive role for politics and regulation in the future when it comes to sustainable transformation of their business models. 

Few pioneers - many companies are at the beginning of the transformation

A small group of "transformers" (1 percent) are at the forefront of implementing sustainability in the change process and have already largely made the switch. This is followed by 15 percent of "innovators". Almost two thirds of companies (63%) are in the process of adapting their business models as "adaptors". Around 21 percent of "basic companies" are at the very beginning. In order to assess the current status of companies, the study introduces the "maturity level of sustainable business model transformation" as a new measure: On a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 stands for a lack of change and sustainability orientation and 1 for highly transformative and sustainable business models, the German economy as a whole achieves a score of just under 0.4.  

"Above all, it is the broad SME sector that is making the move. This is why it is so important to offer support such as tax credits or financial aid to incentivize the sustainable transformation of business models," says  our economic expert Jakob Kunzlmann.

Change as an opportunity for companies

More than half of companies (53.3%) see the increasing sustainability-oriented expectations of their customers as a significant opportunity for their business models. Just under 40% of companies also see decarbonization and the establishment of a circular economy as opportunities. Employees are a decisive factor: although the respondents do not agree on whether their employees represent more of an opportunity or more of a risk in the change process, only a few companies (around 25%) state that employee expectations have no influence. 

From the perspective of companies in the real economy, banks and investors provide little impetus. For a good third (34%), they are "rather" or "completely unimportant" as drivers of future sustainability efforts. "The capital market is one of the weakest rated drivers of future change. It is clearly not yet fulfilling the role that it could and, from a political perspective, should play," says our economic expert Fritz Putzhammer.