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Industry leadership on sustainable development in 3 charts

When it comes to the SDGs, experts advise companies to launch partnerships and innovate on products.

Companies looking for the most effective ways to contribute to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should prioritize pursuing collaborations with partner organizations and developing new products and services, according to a global survey of experienced sustainability professionals.

Applying the SDGs as a lens for setting corporate sustainability goals and analyzing risks are also seen as effective pathways to engage on the global goals, whereas philanthropic contributions are believed to be significantly less impactful.

The 2016 Sustainability Leaders survey, produced by GlobeScan and SustainAbility in partnership with Sustainable Brands, explores the views of over 900 sustainability professionals.

In the first edition of this annual survey since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, experts were asked to evaluate the progress that institutions have made on sustainable development, to contemplate their expectations for the next 20 years and share their views on the companies, NGOs and national governments that they believe are leading on sustainability.

Governments and business face equal expectations

For the first time, national governments and businesses are seen as facing equal responsibility for advancing the sustainable development agenda over the next 20 years.

The private sector has seen a steady rise in expectations for leadership, while the level of responsibility placed on national governments has been declining. This may be due to a perceived failure of some governments to deliver on such a vital aspect of their societal role, coupled with business’s growing influence, capacity and sophistication. On the back of last week’s U.K. referendum outcome, our forecast for government leadership can only be bleak.

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Our last survey on climate change (Leadership on Climate Change: COP21 and Beyond) revealed a similar trend of growing pressure on business to increase its contribution, with both companies and governmental leaders expected to play equally crucial roles in the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement.

However, both institutions will have to step up if they are to meet these growing expectations. Measured on past performance, NGOs and social entrepreneurs continue
 to outperform all other organizations on sustainable development — especially national governments, which remain at the bottom of the list for their achievements.

Survey reveals local sustainability champions

The U.K.-based consumer goods giant Unilever continues to top the list of global corporate leaders. Four in 10 experts (43 perent) name Unilever as the global leader on sustainability, a position that the company has maintained for six years in a row. Runner-ups include Patagonia, Interface, IKEA and Tesla.

The corporate leadership landscape has gone through many changes in the last two decades. We have seen a shift from risk-management focused, industrial companies to consumer-facing ones with complex supply chains, carefully managed reputation and focused leadership.

Six companies have reached the top position in the ranking since 1997 (Dow, BP, Shell, Interface, Natura and Unilever), but the latter continues to hold the record for leading the list for the longest period of time. Interface is the only company to have remained in the top handful since we began tracking corporate leaders in 1997.

To get a more comprehensive picture of corporate leadership, this year we also asked experts to name corporate leaders in their home regions.

Consumer-facing companies are seen as regional sustainability champions in Europe, North America, Africa and Latin America. In Asia, India-headquartered Tata Group of companies enjoys the strongest reputation for leading on sustainability. Of all regions, Latin America has the strongest leader in Natura, which is ahead of competitors by the widest margin, being mentioned by close to half of all regional experts.

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Values, purpose and integration are top drivers of reputation

Company values, leadership and taking an integrated approach to corporate sustainability are the top reasons why experts consider certain companies to be global corporate leaders.

Leadership companies are seen as those that align their sustainability strategies and their internal culture and values, but increasingly, reputation is being driven by communication of a company’s purpose, especially through powerful brand platforms, and the integration of purpose into core business. Strong performance in business model innovation and ambitious goals are also identified as critical characteristics of being recognized as a leader in corporate sustainability.

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Achieving such leadership in sustainability doesn’t sound easy, and it is not. Thankfully, we have a small group of companies to hold up as case studies and to learn from. To imagine that those same companies wish there were more among them is demonstrative of the change in corporate mindset — and the ability to implement — that is required to help achieve the SDGs.

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