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Our Insights 2 Jun 2015

Unilever, WWF, German Government Seen as Setting High Bar by Sustainability Experts

By Aiste Brackley

It has been more than two decades since policymakers, scientists, NGOs and other changemakers gathered in Rio de Janeiro for a historic summit that would set the direction of sustainable development for years to come. Since the 1992 Earth Summit, progress on climate change and sustainability has been uneven, and, many will argue, disappointing. As the date of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris approaches, the global community is facing another seminal year, building hopes that the December 2015 summit will mark the beginning of a new chapter with ambitious goals and more decisive action.

For SustainAbility and GlobeScan’s annual Sustainability Leaders survey, we asked expert stakeholders representing business, government, NGOs and academia across 82 countries to evaluate the progress that institutions have made since the 1992 Earth Summit and reflect on their expectations for the next 20 years.

The results of the survey reinforce the long-term trend of remarkable performance by non-state actors. Primarily NGOs—but also social entrepreneurs, research institutions and social change movements—have played profound roles in driving the sustainable development agenda when governments and multilateral organizations often faltered, quarreled and disappointed. Only a 5% fraction of the 800 sustainability experts surveyed gave a positive evaluation of the performance of national governments since 1992.

And while polled experts continue to have very high expectations for state leaders to spearhead progress on the sustainable agenda, they are also expanding those expectations to a range of actors. The bar is rising for the private sector to take a leadership role along with local governments and research institutions. Worsening resource scarcity, rising global temperatures, diminishing biodiversity and other emerging issues point to an increasingly complex global landscape that calls for joint action and systemic solutions.

Unilever’s global reputation among corporations continues to be judged unparalleled. This is a remarkable achievement for Unilever but as the leadership gap continues to widen each year (Patagonia, which is in the second position, is 27 percentage points behind), what will it take for other sustainability champions to receive similar recognition for their efforts and challenge the current leader?

In addition to corporate leaders, this year, for the first time, we asked which NGOs and governments stand out from the pack. Among NGOs, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace emerged as global top-performers. Their perceived ability to engage a range of stakeholders underscores the critical importance of collaboration for sustainable development progress. When it comes to national governments, Germany and Nordic countries are outperforming other countries on the global stage, but Costa Rica and China are also emerging as strong challengers to European dominance.

During the upcoming weeks, we will explore some of these findings in more detail. What are the attributes of a sustainability leader and how are they different for companies, NGOs and governments? Do leadership perceptions change in different parts of the world? What has been Unilever’s recipe for success in corporate reputation rankings? In the meantime, we hope that this joint SustainAbility/GlobeScan report will inspire provocative conversations, new commitments and further action.

Download the report and learn more!

If you’re in London, please join us for a salon on July 1 to discuss the report’s findings. RSVP today!

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