Evolving Nature of Sustainability Leadership: What 20 years of tracking corporate performance tells us about leadership

07/14/2017 02:02 pm ET

Over two decades, we have witnessed an evolution of the terms upon which organizations are recognized for their leadership in sustainability, and we expect them to become only more demanding in future years.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Sustainability Leaders Survey and in 2017 more than 1,000 qualified experts in 79 countries responded to our questions. The results underscore several distinct trends that have emerged in recent years.

For the seventh year in a row, Unilever is ranked as the premier corporate sustainability leader. Patagonia is in second position, earning the largest increase of any company this year. Interface is the third most mentioned company, the only company to have appeared consistently in the top rankings of sustainability leadership throughout the 20-year history of this survey. IKEA, M&S, Tesla and Natura round out the top seven companies. Both IKEA and M&S have long-standing track records as world-class performers in sustainability, while Tesla is new to the ranking. Natura, the Brazilian cosmetic company, stands out as the only emerging market multinational that has maintained a position of enduring leadership.

Companies Leading on Integrating Sustainable Development

Unprompted, Total Mentions, 2017

GlobeScan / SustainAbility

During the first decade of this survey, the list of corporate leaders was dominated by heavy industrial companies such as Dow, Dupont, 3M, Shell and BP enjoying recognition as sustainability leaders in the late 90s. These companies were pioneers in understanding social and environmental impacts and working to reduce them over time. It was very much an era of ‘do no harm’. However, the second decade of the Sustainability Leaders Survey saw the rapid rise of more consumer-facing brands, first with the likes of Walmart and GE and today with Unilever and Patagonia showing the strongest performance. The current era of sustainability leadership might be best defined as one of ‘sustainable growth’.

When experts mention why they are pointing to leaders as sustainability leaders they mention integrating sustainability values, demonstrating innovation and fostering transparency as the defining characteristics of leading organizations in the next ten years.

This increase in perspective that values are fundamental is an important response to some of the broader cultural and populism that we are experiencing. We either believe in sustainability or we don’t and putting a flag in the ground and advocating is a fundamental part of it.

With only a handful of companies with powerful visions and values winning more share of mind among experts in recent years it is making it harder for others to break through, even though many are making great progress.

Characteristics That Will Define Leading Organizations in the Next Ten Years

Unprompted, Total Mentions, 2017

GlobeScan / SustainAbility

So turning to the future, what do experts think are the most important attributes for the next generation of leaders? More long term thinking, comprehensive integration, innovation, commitment to transparency, engagement and advocacy make up the key ingredients.

Building on the first wave of leadership that was focused on reducing negative impacts, to the current wave of leadership that is demonstrating a new way to grow in ways that are more sustainable, we are likely to see disruptive business models like Tesla’s emerge, creating value through solving societal challenges.

Going forward companies will need to demonstrate that they are relevant, purposeful and innovating for the future we want. I expect a good number of future leaders to be from the Global South where the opportunities for driving change at scale are enormous.

The GlobeScan SustainAbility Leaders Survey 2017 report can be downloaded here.

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