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Sustainability Leaders Agree:
Integrating Purpose, Brand a Top Driver of Corporate Leadership

Integrating purpose through a common brand promise and aligning sustainability strategy with internal culture and values are key drivers of corporate leadership, according to the findings of the just-released 2016 Sustainability Leaders Survey, by GlobeScan and SustainAbility in partnership with Sustainable Brands, released today at SB’16 San Diego.

The Sustainability Leaders Survey has tracked expert opinions on the evolution of the sustainability agenda for two decades, along with views on the leaders and institutions most responsible for driving it forward. This is the first edition of the survey since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change in late 2015.

Mark Lee, Executive Director at SustainAbility, commented: "Sustainability experts now believe that national governments and the private sector must take equal responsibility for advancing sustainable development over the next two decades, with 34 percent of experts rating each as vital to progress. Expectations for governments to lead have gradually decreased in recent years, while those for the private sector have been rising. Multi-sectoral partnerships are also seen as playing a central role.”

Compared to 2015, Patagonia (in second position at 17 percent, up six points), Interface (tied for third with 10 percent of mentions, up 2 points) and IKEA (tied for third position at 10 percent with an increase of 5 points) received more endorsements this year, leading to a more even distribution of expert votes among the top-rated companies in the second tier. Tesla, the only new entrant within the list of the top 13, has also seen a boost in its reputation for sustainability and is tied for fifth position along with Nestlé, Natura and Marks & Spencer (all at 6 percent respectively).

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When asked to identify corporate sustainability leaders that are headquartered within their own regions, experts tend to name consumer-facing companies. Unilever leads in Europe (46 percent) and Woolworths in Africa (18 percent). In Latin America, Natura leads by the widest margin, being mentioned by close to half of all experts (47 percent). The landscape in North America is the most competitive: While Patagonia (16 percent) heads the list, Nike (10 percent), Interface (8 percent) and Walmart (7 percent) are close runners-up. In Asia, the Tata group of companies occupies the top position on the list (10 percent).

Values, purpose and integration are the top drivers that respondents named as reasons why they considered certain companies to be global corporate leaders. They also consider leadership companies to excel at integrating social and environmental purpose into core business. Strong performance in business model innovation and ambitious goals are also identified as critical characteristics of being recognized as a leader in corporate sustainability.

Eric Whan, Director at GlobeScan, said: “Leadership companies are seen as those that align their sustainability strategies and their internal culture and values. Their social, environmental and business purposes work together toward the same impact, powered by clear goals and the innovation required to achieve them.”

For the first time, the Sustainability Leaders Survey was conducted in partnership with Sustainable Brands.

"We believe that activating the power of purpose can take company performance to the next level,” said Dimitar Vlahov, Sustainable Brands’ Content Development Director. “We hope that in addition to growing expectations for the private sector, we will see the beginning of another trend – one of greater impact and collaboration.”

Among other findings:

  • Four in ten respondents (44 percent) suggest that the most effective way for companies to make a positive contribution toward the SDGs is through pursuing strategic partnerships and developing products and services. Experts also recommend that the private sector should apply the SDGs as a lens in goal-setting and risk analysis processes.
  • Among NGOs, World Wildlife Fund (30 percent) continues to be regarded as the global leader in advancing sustainable development, and it has widened its lead (up 5 percentage points from 2015) over Greenpeace (20 percent) and Oxfam (11 percent), ranked second and third, respectively. Forum for the Future (3 percent) is the only new entrant on the list of the top ten NGO leaders.
  • The Swedish government (27 percent) is most frequently named as the global leader on sustainable development. It is mentioned as a leader among states by more than one-quarter of respondents and is ahead of Germany (25 percent) and Scandinavian peers Denmark (18 percent) and Norway (14 percent). Costa Rica (8 percent) continues to be the only country outside of Europe and North America on the top-ten list of governments.
  • Experts are critical of industry efforts in managing the transition to sustainable development, with many industries receiving mostly negative or neutral ratings. The oil and gas, and mining industries are viewed extremely negatively by respondents, ranking worse than other sectors for lagging in a transition to sustainable development. The chemical industry has seen the most dramatic fall in its reputation since 2000.