When will emerging economies embrace sustainability?

Each year, GlobeScan's Sustainability Leaders survey asks experts to name a company they regard as a leader in sustainability. As Joel Makower noted recently, one company above all others -- Unilever -- has emerged as the sustainability champion par excellence in recent years, thanks to its highly ambitious Sustainable Living Plan. And this year, more than one in four experts mention the company is stretching its lead over the competition.

Despite its dominance, Unilever is not the only show in town. Experts highly rate Patagonia, Puma, Interface and Walmart. The sustainability leaders identified by our global experts have at least one thing in common: They are headquartered in the global North.

Companies from the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with middle-income economies, are for the most part notable by their absence. Only Brazilian cosmetics manufacturer Natura (mentioned by 3 percent of global experts) ranks among the top 15 companies.

To lay down a baseline on emerging-market corporate sustainability leaders, we asked experts to name a company headquartered in the developing world that is a leader in sustainability. Tellingly, six in 10 experts were unable to give any examples. Some that were mentioned (SABMiller, for example) are in fact companies from the global North, albeit ones with a large developing-world footprint.

Across our global sample of experts, only Natura and Tata are mentioned by a substantial number of experts (10 percent and 5 percent, respectively).

When we look more closely, however, experts do identify companies as emerging economy leaders.

  • In Asia, ITC and Tata are top-of-mind leaders;
  • In Africa/Middle East, experts praise Woolworths, Sasol and Nedbank;
  • In Latin America, one in two experts flags Natura, while smaller proportions point to Petrobras and Vale;
  • European and North American thought leaders are most likely to mention Natura and Tata.

We expect this to change. The question is, when? Given the pace of the ongoing realignment of global business dynamics, compounded by the demand we observe from the consumer marketplace in developing and emerging economies for progressive corporate behavior, we are bound to see more companies from Brazil, Russia, India and China ascending our list of leaders. We will be watching -- and measuring -- with future polls.

For now, it may be some time before we see companies from the global South infiltrating the upper reaches of our Sustainability Leaders list in significant numbers. But if being a leader in sustainability is partly about responding to the needs and expectations of one’s society, it’s hard to make the case that the corporate world in the global South is lagging behind. Maybe our expectations need to change. 

Photo of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) country flags provided by Jim Barber/Shutterstock