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Why Entrepreneurs Beat Business Leaders for Green Cred

<p>Business leaders are viewed more favorably than government leaders and multilateral organizations in advancing sustainability, but less than one fourth of experts and practitioners think that corporate leaders are doing a good job at it, placing them well behind social entrepreneurs, NGOs and scientists.</p>

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

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.

Speaking of public policy, the failure to achieve a binding international agreement on climate change, and the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass climate change legislation, must be aggravating perceptions of government leaders as laggards on sustainability. And the most recent gyrations of Congress, threatening to repeal the modest measures that have been taken, only worsen the sense that politicians are unable to effectively address our big challenges.

Which brings us to corporate leaders. The favorability rating is actually up slightly from the last two years, but still below 25 percent. Why? Well, beyond the well-publicized and significant sustainability initiatives by such companies as Unilever, GE, Interface, Walmart and Marks & Spencer (the top five corporate leaders, according to our survey), the corporate sector has been unable to make real progress on the social and environmental indicators that are of most concern to the sustainability community.

So, what can corporate leaders learn from our most recent survey of experts? Here are a few takeaways:

  • Aim higher: Set ambitious goals, even if it means not knowing how to achieve them, as Unilever has done in its Sustainable Living Plan. 
  • Challenge consumption: Reconsider the role of consumption in your business model. As my colleague Kyra Choucroun noted in her recent blog post, “access [to goods and services] is now the privilege, while ownership is just a burden."
  • Manage beyond the fence line: Find new opportunities for influence -- beyond your own operations -- in your value chain, as Walmart has in its goal of sending zero waste to landfill, and its commitment to increasing the income of one million small and medium farmer suppliers.
  • Innovate and collaborate: Nike made waves in 2010 by co-launching GreenXchange, a digital platform allowing patent owners to make portions of their intellectual property portfolio available to others to accelerate the pace of innovation. And Nike is continuing to push the envelope further.

More information on GlobeScan and SustainAbility’s latest survey work, is available at SustainAbility’s Library,

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Office Now.

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