2021 Sustainability Leaders Survey examines attitudes of nearly 700 experts from over 70 countries, reflecting on the pandemic’s implications for sustainable social and environmental development agendas — and who is perceived to be leading the charge.
New research from GlobeScan and the SustainAbility Institute by ERM finds that sustainability experts believe the global pandemic will help draw attention to environmental issues — but will also deepen socio-economic challenges such as poverty and inequality.
The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Leaders Survey has tracked global expert opinions on the evolution of the sustainability agenda since 1997. This 25th edition of the report has taken place against the unprecedented backdrop of the pandemic, with nearly 700 sustainability experts from over 70 countries reflecting on its implications for the sustainable development agenda.
Overall, experts are now more optimistic that the pandemic will not derail action on sustainable development. In 2020, almost half of sustainability professionals (49 percent) predicted a de-prioritization of corporate sustainability agendas over the coming decade due to the coronavirus; in 2021, just one in four experts (24 percent) believe this will happen. Furthermore, a third of experts believe more attention will be given to the environment due to the pandemic.
However, COVID-19 is perceived to be exacerbating socio-economic challenges, with nearly four in ten experts believing that increased poverty and inequality will be one of the most likely effects of the pandemic. When asked to rank the most urgent sustainable development challenges, experts believe that climate change remains the most pressing issue; but issues such as access to energy, food security, diversity and discrimination have increased the most in perceived urgency over the past year.
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“Once again, this survey of sustainability experts and influencers across the world reinforces the urgency of the planetary challenges that we face from climate change to inequality and offers hope in comparison to last year that sustainability is being prioritized," says GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter. "The collective wisdom of this distinguished panel of experts needs to be heeded. We need to do more at scale to facilitate the transition to sustainable development at a far greater pace than we are currently doing.”
Within this context, Unilever ranks first (for the 11th consecutive year); with Patagonia second (for the 5th consecutive year), as the companies most recognized by experts for their sustainability leadership — but the gap is narrowing among corporate leaders. Brazil’s Natura &Co has overtaken IKEA and Interface to break into the top three. Companies filling out the top 15 include IKEA, Interface, Danone, Microsoft, Nestlé, Tesla, Ørsted, Google, Kering, Schneider Electric, Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano, and Walmart. In a signal that the hallmarks of leadership have shifted, sustainable business models and strategy are now considered the strongest driver of recognized leadership, overtaking target-setting and articulating sustainability values or purpose.
Mark Lee, Director at the SustainAbility Institute by ERM, said: “What we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic is a triple whammy of interconnected social, economic and environmental challenges. None of these can be tackled in isolation, which requires organizations to have more comprehensive sustainability strategies integrated into their business and operating models. Leading businesses are showing the way as we enter the decade of action.”