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Reports 19 Jun 2018

The 2018 Sustainability Leaders

A GlobeScan / SustainAbility Survey

By Mark Lee and Bron York

The 2018 GlobeScan-Sustainability Leaders Survey shows Unilever’s top ranking among global experts for strong sustainability leadership continuing.

Meanwhile, Interface, the only company to place in the Leaders Survey every year since inception, extended its unbroken run among the most admired companies for yet another year. Finally, Walmart has returned to the Leaders Survey highest echelon after a multi-year absence, while Apple and Danone have debuted among the most recognized companies.

For a remarkable eighth year in a row, Unilever is ranked as the leading global corporate sustainability leader, receiving close to half the total mentions by experts. Unilever is the most dominant private sector leader in the history of the GlobeScan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey, with its margin of leadership expanding every year since it first appeared in the number one position in 2011. Patagonia and Interface occupy the second and third positions in the ranking as they did in 2017, after which IKEA, Marks & Spencer, Tesla, Nestlé, Natura, Danone, Apple and Walmart round out the list of highest-ranked companies.

For the eighth year in a row, Unilever is ranked as the top global corporate sustainability leader, mentioned by 47 percent of experts.

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Continuing the trend of the last few years, most high-ranked companies are consumer-facing brands. It is notable that Walmart returned to the top cohort of companies in 2018; Walmart last appeared amongst the leaders in 2013. For Danone and Apple, this is the first time they have been included in this distinguished group.

The 2018 Leaders Survey reveals that integrating sustainability values, making sustainability part of the core business model and committed executive leadership are the key characteristics recognized by expert respondents as defining corporate leadership.

Among NGOs, WWF and Greenpeace retain their dominant positions as the two most widely recognized NGOs. They are perceived even more positively by younger experts aged 18-35, which may harbor well for their enduring future strength.

For the first time in 2018, expert respondents were asked to assess how well leading companies perform against five key leadership attributes – Purpose, Plan, Culture, Collaboration and Advocacy – as defined in detail in a new book, All In: The Future of Business Leadership, written by GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter and SustainAbility Executive Director Mark Lee with David Grayson of the Cranfield School of Management. While the book argues the interdependence of the five aspects is critical to business success and sustainability progress, the authors and survey respondents agree that Advocacy is today the least developed of the attributes, while Plan is the most mature.

The impact of multi-sector partnerships and collaborations on the sustainable development agenda is perceived to have steadily improved since 2015.

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A new question in the 2018 Leaders Survey asked how young adults (defined as those aged 18 to 35) can best influence progress on the sustainable development agenda. All Leaders Survey respondents agree that consumer behavior and political participation are the most promising ways for this cohort to have influence. Interestingly though, 18-35 year olds and those 36+ differ in their opinions on the potential efficacy of other actions. Young experts are more likely to view entrepreneurship, career and education choices, investment decisions and advocacy as more important to advancing the sustainable development agenda than experts 36+, while those experts 36 and older rate influencing employers and volunteerism higher than their younger peers.

While the top cohort of companies represents an inspiring snapshot of leadership today, the greatest opportunity to advance private sector influence on sustainable development lies with the tens of thousands of global corporations that have not yet made it onto this list. We hope that the 2018 Leaders Survey motivates more companies to define their own strategy and act decisively to advance sustainability. Regardless their size, every company and every business leader has the potential to drive meaningful impact on the global stage. What is needed most is a vast expansion of the number of companies seriously engaging sustainability opportunities and challenges, and reinventing their business models to give themselves the greatest chance of enduring future success.

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