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Reports 28 May 2015

The 2015 Sustainability Leaders

A GlobeScan / SustainAbility Survey

By Chris Guenther and Aiste Brackley

More than two decades ago, government leaders, scientists, NGOs and other change makers gathered in Rio de Janeiro for a historic summit that would set the direction of sustainable development (SD) for years to come. Since the 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 summit will mark the beginning of a new chapter with ambitious goals and more decisive action.

For this survey, we asked expert stakeholders representing business, government, NGOs and academia across 82 countries to evaluate the progress that various institutions have made since 1992 and reflect on their expectations for the next 20 years. We were not surprised to see in the results the continuation of remarkable achievement by non-state actors, including especially NGOs, which remain in a league of their own. We were also unsurprised by the extremely poor performance of national governments, according to expert stakeholders.

We asked expert stakeholders to evaluate the progress that various institutions have made since 1992 and reflect on their expectations for the next 20 years.

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What did surprise us was that stakeholders’ expectations for leadership are gradually becoming more balanced across a range of actors. No doubt, this shift is a result of frustration with the poor long-term achievement by state actors. But it is also a reflection of an increasingly complex global landscape with a multitude of actors expected to collaborate on solutions to systemic challenges. In this context, the perceived improvement in the performance of the United Nations is encouraging, and this leadership will be put to the test later this year when decision-makers gather in Paris.

As usual, in this survey we asked stakeholders about who they consider to be the corporate leaders in the area of sustainability. Consistent with the past four years, Unilever’s global reputation among corporations is judged by experts to be unparalleled, with the leadership gap this year widening even further. This is a remarkable achievement by the company, especially since past leaders have tended to falter or be supplanted by others within a few years of claiming the top of the ranking.

This year we also asked about which NGO and national leaders are standing out from the pack, and why. Among NGOs, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace emerge as global top-performers and their perceived ability to engage a range of stakeholders once again underscores the critical importance of collaboration for SD progress.

When it comes to national governments, Germany and Nordic countries are believed to outperform other countries on the global stage, but Costa Rica and China are also emerging as strong challengers to European dominance in the SD sphere.

Regardless of whether talking about corporations, NGOs or governments, survey respondents were clear: values are paramount to leadership. Without vision and commitment, progress will remain out of reach. We hope that this report will inspire new thinking, bold action and fresh collective effort.

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