This report represents an important milestone. The longest-running survey of its kind, this year’s annual Sustainability Leaders report marks 20 years’ worth of tracking and analysis on the evolution of the sustainability agenda, and of the leaders and institutions most responsible for driving it forward.
According to the 887 expert stakeholders surveyed from business, government,NGOs and academia across 87 countries, only one company increased its influence this year: Unilever. The company not only claims the top slot for the fourth year in a row, but also does so by its widest ever margin, creating a significant leadership gap relative to other prominent companies.
Some may argue this isn’t very groundbreaking, and/or that it risks overshadowing the very excellent efforts (and real performance) of other companies, many of whom don’t even appear in this ranking. We agree. But it is important to recognize that this is not an objective analysis of which companies, or any other institutions, are genuinely performing best. It only reflects the prevailing opinion of experts as to which few of the many high performing companies are viewed as leaders, and as such, it is profoundly interesting.
Why is it that Unilever is so universally recognized as a leader? How has it stayed at the top of the list for so long – longer than other top performers in past years? What does it tell us about the state of sustainability, and of corporate leadership, in general?
One thing we do know is that standards of leadership are dynamic. Page 15 shows how the landscape of corporate leadership has evolved since 1997, including several distinct eras defined by a handful of influential (and often similar) companies. In the present era, the consumer products and food industries, represented in part by major retailers who exert significant influence over global supply chains, rise to the top. This leads to further questions: What company or industry will be the next to take center stage, and what new combination of leadership attributes will propel it there?
But, for all the nuances of how experts judge the relative leadership of companies, perhaps the bigger story is that they continue to see absolute leadership – of companies and governments, particularly – so thoroughly lacking. With companies calling for governments to set policies that will unlock a sustainable future, and politicians waiting for companies to lead the way, these are frustrating, if not dangerous, times.
The science is clear, the business case is strong, and the ethical obligations are obvious: we simply do not have another 20 years to achieve significant wins on pressing sustainability issues. We hope this report will spur not just dialogue, but more bold, near-term action that transforms value chains and affects positive sustainable change around the world.