Why Entrepreneurs Beat Business Leaders for Green Cred

[Editor's Note: GlobeScan and SustainAbility release the findings today of the 2011 SustainAbility Survey. New coverage of the report is available on GreenBiz.com.]

Here is the good news for companies investing in integrating sustainability into their business: You are perceived much more favorably than government leaders and multilateral organizations in advancing the sustainability agenda.

But here is the bad news: Less than one fourth of experts and practitioners think that corporate leaders are doing a good job of it, placing them well behind social entrepreneurs, NGOs and scientists.

According to the latest GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey, social entrepreneurs garner the most confidence among those surveyed, with 57 percent rating their ability to advance the sustainability agenda as “excellent” or “good.” While less than half felt that NGO leaders performed well, this was better than leaders in the scientific community fared (40 percent). Corporate leaders and leaders of multilateral organizations both received a favorable rating of just under 25 percent. Meanwhile, sustainability performance of elected national leaders is seen as dismal, with only 6 percent rating them favorably.

Surprising? Not really. In recent years it has become more and more obvious that incremental improvement is not going to be adequate to overcome the severe challenges that we face as a society, including climate change, water scarcity, poverty, disease and biodiversity loss. The sustainability community is hungry for products and business models that don’t just do a little less harm, but have the potential to make radical improvements. And social entrepreneurs -- those little guys who are bucking the system -- are seen as the best hope by many for driving the dramatic change that is required.

The perception of NGOs' performance has slipped a bit over the last three years, dipping for the first time under 50 percent favorable rating. However, the ratio of favorable-to-unfavorable is better than 3:1 (one third of respondents were neutral), indicating a still-strong perception of performance. Perhaps the NGO community’s inability to drive public policy on issues such as climate change keeps them from being seen in a better light.