What’s the Big Idea?

Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. Marks & Spencer’s Plan A. GE’s ecomagination. Nike Better World.

Feel like you can’t turn around without bumping into a big, brassy, branded, corporate sustainability program these days? Or at least a product campaign (think Nissan Leaf) that seeks to cast a green and otherwise sustainable hue over an organization? It seems we have entered the age of the Big (Sustainable) Idea, an epoch in which performance as well as leadership and influence are limited without membership in this club.

SustainAbility has been watching and assessing sustainability branding and leadership trends for years. Clients often ask how important such initiatives are to their performance potential. Does the Big Idea have impact? And is it positive?

Survey Says…

Data we track with GlobeScan suggests that the Big Idea is a key element affecting both performance and perception. In our joint 2012 Sustainability Leaders survey, Unilever was the top-ranked company globally for the second year running. GE and Marks & Spencer also finished in the top five (along with Walmart and Interface), while Nike has long been a high flyer on a wide variety of sustainability indices and scorecards.

A layer below the absolute rankings, time series data shows jumps in leadership perception from the time Big Idea initiatives launch — Unilever trends up significantly from the launch of its Sustainable Living Plan, GE from the launch of ecomagination, etc.

In SustainAbility’s overarching sustainability leadership framework, we refer to the Big Idea as Vision. Coupled with Engagement and Performance, we see Vision as one of the essential components of sustainability leadership, and our experience suggests significant progress is difficult unless all three elements are in play.

Just a Thought

The Big Idea or Vision can’t stand on its own — there has to be substance to go with it.

When SustainAbility assesses corporate leadership profiles, we further expand and then break down Vision, Engagement and Performance as follows:

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