Report: Global Survey Finds Covid-19 Is Intensifying Sustainable Development Challenges, But Leading Businesses Are Stepping Up Action

Leading Businesses Are Stepping Up Action in Sustanable Development
  • Four in ten sustainability experts believe the pandemic will increase poverty and inequality

  • Access to energy, food security, diversity, and discrimination are also increasing in urgency

  • One-third of experts believe COVID-19 will lead to more attention on the environment

  • Sustainable business models and strategy are the strongest drivers of recognized corporate leadership, overtaking target-setting and sustainability values/purpose

28 July 2021: 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. The 25th edition of this 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%) predicted a de-prioritization of the sustainability agenda over the coming decade as a result of the coronavirus; in 2021, just one in four experts (24%) 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 increasing 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.

Within this context, Unilever and Patagonia rank first and second, respectively, 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, Suzano, and Walmart. In a signal that the hallmarks of leadership have shifted, sustainable business models and strategy is 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.”

Chris Coulter, CEO at GlobeScan commented: “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. 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.”

Leading Businesses Are Stepping Up Action in Sustanable Development

Leading Businesses Are Stepping Up Action in Sustanable Development

Download the Full Report

For more information, please contact:

About the SustainAbility Institute by ERM

The SustainAbility Institute by ERM is ERM’s primary platform for thought leadership on sustainability. The purpose of the Institute is to define, accelerate, and scale sustainability performance by developing actionable insight for business. We provide an independent and authoritative voice that helps decode complexities. The Institute identifies innovative solutions to global sustainability challenges built on ERM’s experience, expertise, and commitment to transformational change. For more information, visit