Building the Good Life: Evolving Perceptions of Corporate Sustainability Leadership

Mid-May 2017, more than 2,000 sustainability professionals gathered in Detroit for the annual Sustainable Brands conference. SB’17 Detroit’s theme Redefining the Good Life was designed to let delegates explore “how redefined societal aspirations are transforming the way brands deliver value for their customers.”
During the opening night plenaries, Eric Whan of GlobeScan and Mark Lee of SustainAbility presented the results of the 2017 GlobeScan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey. The GSS Leaders Survey has been running for two decades and explores sustainability expert views on institutional leadership, especially by business, on sustainable development. With this focus at the heart of the survey throughout its history, the findings resonated strongly with the SB’17 Good Life theme. Further, GlobeScan and SustainAbility are delighted that Sustainable Brands has been a partner on the Leaders Survey the last two years.
Below we share what we found the 2017 results told us about business leadership and whether companies are truly helping create a good life — that is to say, a more just and sustainable economy — for their customers and citizens generally.

Compelling Consistency

Two constants stand out in the 2017 GSS Leaders results.
First, for the seventh year in a row, Unilever is ranked by experts as the premier global corporate sustainability leader, receiving nearly half the total mentions from the more than 1,000 experts worldwide who responded to the question: “What specific companies do you think are leaders in integrating sustainability into their business strategy?” Also, the degree to which experts perceive Unilever to be the top leader is the greatest margin of leadership ever seen in the survey’s history. Suffice to say, the company’s Sustainable Living Plan has impressed.
Second, Interface placed in the top cohort of leadership yet again this year, something it has done every year since the survey’s inception. Interface is the only company to have achieved this, which reflects the remarkable dedication, clarity of vision and meaningful action the company has demonstrated in pursuit of a more sustainable business model since the 1990’s, and the widespread admiration this has won.
In addition to the enduring leadership demonstrated by each of Unilever and Interface, Patagonia’s number two ranking solidified in the eyes of experts. Others in the top cohort in 2017 (those mentioned by at least 3% of respondents) who have been highly acclaimed in past years included IKEA, M&S, Natura, BASF, GE, Nestlé and Nike, with the only notable newcomer in the top echelon (first breaking through in 2016) being Tesla. Overall, we see an emerging trend of top leaders becoming more firmly ensconced in their places, at least in the view of our expert pool.

While the GSS generates a ranking of leadership companies, even more survey effort is devoted to understanding what behaviors leadership companies exhibit that convince the expert respondent pool of their commitment. Vision and goals were the leadership attributes that received the highest ratings for top-ranked companies. Advocacy and the ability to connect and engage are also among the major drivers of reputation.

Framing the Future

The GSS is best at revealing present and past perceptions of leadership, dedicating just one question to future leadership characteristics. But of course it is the future that is actually most critical.
To explore what will define corporate sustainability leadership through 2030, a date now sharply defined as a critical junction at which to assess sustainable development progress in key frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, GlobeScan and SustainAbility partnered with Interface to host a dinner at SB’17 exploring pathways through our yet unclear future. The group of nearly two dozen corporate leaders assembled (heavy on companies previously represented in the GSS, but also sprinkled with some emerging leaders) dove into several hours of intense discussion on the biggest sustainability leadership challenges companies are expected to face 2017-2030, pondering also the kinds of support they will need from others to thrive in that time period while helping redefine and deliver the good life for others.
Respecting the confidential and collegial nature of the discussion, we want to share some of the more striking mentions of the evening.

Even Leaders Daunted

If Interface and the other companies represented were unanimous about anything, it is that the sustainability challenges ahead will demand more of corporations than they presently know how to deliver.
The tension and challenges inherent in navigating the need to collaborate on systemic solutions on the one hand, and market dynamics driven by short-term competitive gains on the other, was a dominant theme of the evening.
“We as sustainability leaders need to take a more active role in challenging the dominant narrative around short-term as the “right” model for business,” said Erin Meezan, Vice President & Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface and evening co-host, echoing a sentiment widely shared by executives in the room.
The integration of sustainability values into the core of business operations was also cited as key even while being recognized as an aspiration for most companies today. As one dinner participant noted, we are still grappling with the task of “how to translate what’s good for the world to what’s good for business.” In most companies, the budget, plans and operations of sustainability teams remain too far removed from more mainstream business functions. This gap has to close.
The 2017 GSS results suggest that committed executive leadership is particularly essential to embedding and delivering on sustainability initiatives, and dinner attendees said they expect the role of senior corporate leaders to become even more important in the future. Unilever’s current dominance of the GSS and many other corporate sustainability rankings is a testament to the impact a committed and visionary CEO like Paul Polman can have on sustainability reputation and performance. While now nearly a trope, we truly need more senior business leaders to “Be like Paul” and show greater and more consistent commitment to sustainability. As observed by one participant, “It is essential to be changing CEO perspectives if we want to see meaningful change.”

A Collaborative Challenge

While each company is unique in their ongoing sustainability challenges, the corporate leaders gathered in Detroit were united in their perception that delivering a radically more sustainable economy by 2030 will be out of reach unless companies and other stakeholders join forces behind initiatives of unprecedented scale and ambition — initiatives commensurate in size to the magnitude of the problems we face.
Dinner attendees remarked that we are too often divided in the face of adversity and hesitant to share best practices; pre-competitive collaboration is buzzy, but still nowhere near a private sector norm. One voice captured this saying “Senior corporate executives often think about what we can do differently and uniquely; rather, it should be about what we can do together.”
All attendees agreed that the prospect of businesses united – with one another and with stakeholders – is where potential is highest. We discussed how consumers are increasingly recognized as allies and powerful change agents in their own right, with one member of the conversation noting the truly huge potential latent in connecting with and engaging customers.

Think Together, Think Big

In closing, we connected the thinking on scale and collaboration, believing that it is the combination of the two that will define future leaders and future success. “The future of leadership is about scalability” said one attendee; “Tackling the big problems is what matters” said another. We all nodded — and promised to work on scalable solutions together rather than let this conversation fade as an interesting evening without translating the good thinking to impact.
This blog was written by SustainAbility’s Mark Lee and Aiste Brackley as part of our 20th Anniversary GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leaders Survey.