Globescan and SustainAbility released their 2015 Sustainability Leaders survey today, asking experts to assess the progress that various institutions have made in advancing sustainable development since the historic Earth Summit in 1992.
Results drawn from 816 sustainability experts across 82 countries indicate a positive perception of non-state actors and lack of confidence in the leadership of national governments. NGOs’ sustainability contribution is ranked highest among those polled, followed by social entrepreneurs, independent academic organizations, social change movements, and multi-sector collaborations.
On the question of leadership within individual sectors, Unilever, WWF and Germany emerged as the top sustainability performers mentioned by experts.
Unilever was overwhelmingly identified as a sustainability leader. After leading the rankings for over five years, the company further improved its position and is now ahead of competitors by 27 percentage points. The company was mentioned by 38 percent of participants, followed by Patagonia (11 percent), Interface (8 percent), Marks & Spencer (6 percent), Natura and IKEA (both at 5 percent).
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A company’s sustainability values, including the beliefs of executive leadership, were identified by 26 percent of experts as the key reason for corporate leadership. The integration of sustainability into core business models (22 percent), sustainable products and services (12 percent), “walking the talk” with results (12 percent), setting ambitious targets (10 percent) and long-term commitments (9 percent) were also viewed as significant.
WWF emerged as the NGO leader in advancing sustainability (mentioned by 25 percent of respondents), in part due to its focus on collaboration. One respondent cited WWF’s “strong emphasis on coalition and multi-stakeholder approaches to achieve scale and durability of initiatives” as the reason for its strong performance. Richard Holland, WWF’s Director of Market Transformation, called the diversity of approaches among NGOs a “hallmark” of their strong performance in the Globescan/SustAinability webinar discussing the survey.
Other top reasons cited for NGO leadership included their influence and impact (25 percent), approach and goals (22 percent), and their understanding of the issues (17 percent).
Behind WWF, the NGO leaders cited include Greenpeace (18 percent), Oxfam (9 percent), World Resources Institute (6 percent) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (5 percent).
Germany was identified as a leader by 25 percent of experts, followed by Sweden (21 percent), Denmark (16 percent), Norway (13 percent), the UK (11 percent) and the Netherlands (8 percent). Outside of Europe, Costa Rica is the highest-ranking country (8 percent), and China is the top-performing Asian country, mentioned by 7 percent of experts.
Similar to the drivers of corporate leadership, 31 percent of respondents identified a country’s values as key to their sustainability performance, followed by action on energy and climate change (27 percent); and its policies being ambitious, innovative, comprehensive or strict (22 percent).
Who Will Lead?
“Perceptions of performance and expectations for leadership remain deeply misaligned,” the report concludes. While state actors and the private sector are expected to drive action on sustainability, polled experts view their performance as very poor: Governments rank 11th (last) in performance, but 1st in expectations for leadership; the private sector ranks 8th and 2nd, respectively. By contrast, non-state actors are not expected to be core drivers of sustainable development, but their performance is rated the highest.
However, expectations for leadership have become more balanced across a range of actors in recent years. Expectations for governments have decreased slightly since 2012, while a broader group of actors — the private sector, NGOs, the United Nations — are expected to share responsibility more evenly.
Results also indicate the United Nations is perceived as among those positioned to lead the sustainable development agenda; it is the only organization that increased its performance score from 2012, and it ranks 4th in expected leadership. This finding may indicate high hopes for substantive climate action at the COP21 meeting this December.