The latest research from GlobeScan and the SustainAbility Institute by ERM finds that sustainability leadership is increasingly being measured by the integration of sustainability into business strategy. For the first time, Patagonia has surpassed Unilever as the most recognized corporate leader in this space after transferring ownership of the company to a trust that seeks to address climate change and protect nature.
As the largest and longest-running survey of its kind, The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Leaders Survey has tracked expert opinions on sustainable development leadership for more than 25 years. Over 500 sustainability professionals across 63 countries were surveyed in 2023.
While sustainability experts believe that the sustainability agenda is now mostly driven by legislative initiatives and disclosure frameworks, corporate sustainability leadership increasingly requires companies to go beyond compliance toward innovative business models with sustainability at their core.
Experts are also looking for evidence of positive impacts, along with aspirational goals and a sense of genuine purpose, highlighting the need to continue taking ambitious approaches in the face of increasing pressure from regulation and disclosure requirements.
Urgency of sustainable development challenges and recent breakthroughs
Ninety-three percent of sustainability experts continue to rank climate change as the most urgent challenge. Deforestation was included in the survey for the first time in 2023 and ranks among the top five most urgent issues (86%). Other issues ranking consistently high in urgency over the past five years include biodiversity loss (86%), water scarcity (86%), and poverty (80%).
Sustainability experts point to a range of new sustainability legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and EU Green Deal (mentioned by 25%), disclosure standards (13%), and the COP15 biodiversity agreement (10%) as most significant. Other highlighted developments include recent action and commitments by businesses (9%) and the rise of green financing (7%).
Mark Lee, Director of the SustainAbility Institute by ERM said: “Companies are increasingly integrating sustainability into their business strategies and are recognized as leaders for doing so. This year’s leader, Patagonia, has taken integration of sustainability to an unprecedented level by channeling all profits to nature and climate action. The bar for sustainable business continues to rise, and corporates will need to keep pushing boundaries to maintain their status as leaders.”
Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan said: “Government is back when it comes to sustainability! Stakeholders point to new legislation and disclosure rules as the most important breakthroughs in the sustainability agenda in the past year.”
Company and NGO leadership on sustainable development
For the first time in this survey, Patagonia (mentioned by 32% of experts) is the company most recognized by sustainability professionals for its work on sustainability, unseating Unilever (29%) which had enjoyed the top spot for over a decade. IKEA (10%), Natura &Co (9%), and Microsoft (6%) round out the top five.
Experts are increasingly prioritizing tangible impact and action (mentioned by 23% of experts) and setting ambitious goals and targets (16%) while continuing to cite placing sustainability at the very core of the business model (31%) as the prime reason they recognize a company as a leader.
While the list of globally recognized sustainability leaders has changed only modestly in recent years, different names emerge when experts are asked to identify sustainability leaders among companies headquartered in their own regions. Experts in Africa and the Middle East highlight Safaricom (12%), Nedbank (10%), and Woolworths (10%) as regionally based sustainability leaders, while those in Asia-Pacific point to Mahindra & Mahindra (10%), City Developments Ltd. (8%), and PTT Global (8%). In Latin America and the Caribbean, Natura &Co is the stand-out recognized sustainability leader named by 46 percent of experts in that region, followed by Suzano (16%) and O Boticário (15%).
Among NGOs, sustainability experts continue to overwhelmingly recognize the World Wildlife Fund as the leader in sustainable development (named by 42%) followed by Greenpeace and organizations tied to the United Nations such as the Global Compact (named by 15% each) and the World Resources Institute (named by 14%).
Notes to editors
The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Leaders Survey captures insights from sustainability experts and charts the shifting sustainability agenda over time.
It is part of the GlobeScan / SustainAbility Survey of Experts Stakeholder Research Program: the largest and longest-running survey of its kind, it has tracked expert opinions on sustainable development leadership for more than 25 years. The research draws from bi-annual surveys of our global panel of experienced sustainability experts (including leaders in business, government, NGOs, and academia) on topics such as recognized leadership, climate change, biodiversity, inequality, the SDGs, and key emerging issues.
A total of 520 qualified sustainability experts across 63 countries and representing different sectors including Corporate, Service & Media, Academia, NGOs, and Government completed the online questionnaire between March 13 and May 7, 2023. The survey was offered in Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, in addition to English.
About the SustainAbility Institute by ERM
The SustainAbility Institute is ERM’s primary platform for thought leadership on sustainability. Its purpose is to define, accelerate, and scale sustainability performance by developing actionable insight for business. The Institute identifies innovative solutions to global sustainability challenges built on ERM’s experience, expertise, and commitment to transformational change.
As the largest global pure play sustainability consultancy, ERM partners with the world’s leading organizations to create innovative solutions to sustainability challenges and unlock commercial opportunities that meet the needs of today while preserving opportunity for future generations.
ERM’s diverse team of 7,500+ world-class experts in over 170 offices in 39 countries supports clients across the breadth of their organizations to operationalize sustainability. Through ERM’s deep technical expertise, clients are well-positioned to address their environmental, health, safety, risk, and social issues. ERM calls this capability its “boots to boardroom” approach – a comprehensive service model that allows ERM to develop strategic and technical solutions that advance objectives on the ground or at the executive level.
This article first appeared on ERM website on 08 June 2023.