5 insights from Globescan’s State of Sustainability Leadership Report 2017

Globescan, in conjunction with Sustainability, have just published their annual Sustainability Leader’s Survey. At 20 years old it’s one of the longest running evidence bases of the state of leadership covering Government, NGOs and Business. It’s based on the views of 1000 experts in 79 countries around the world.

The report offers a wealth of insight but it’s up to you how you interpret it. Here’s a view from a webinar that Joanna Yarrow of IKEA and Sue Garrard of Unilever took part in:

So here are 5 (very) personal views on what Globescan have found:

  1. Who is providing a view?

It’s easy to walk past the preliminaries, who has responded from where, but they tell their own story. Overwhelmingly respondents are from the North America and Europe (68%) in total with just 32% from Oceania, Asia, Africa and Latin America. We can assume that’s just a reflection of the state of the evolution of the sustainability debate but I have a nagging concern that we are not collectively digging deep enough to get a view beyond North America/Europe.

Which are the most energised and (positively) disruptive Governments in the world right now? China and India. The biggest ‘planned’ economy and the biggest democracy racing to keep ahead of the threat to their stability and growth caused by pollution. And in managing this risk also intriguingly on the edge of seeing the green growth opportunities of leadership. Is this tectonic shift giving rise to new, disruptive companies and NGOs? Not that we can see through a traditional western centric ‘lens’ but perhaps something lurks out there that we aren’t detecting yet.

2. Who are the leaders?

In some senses there’s no news here, it’s the usual suspects. Unilever (stretching its lead), Patagonia, Interface, Ikea, Natura and Tesla rightly lauded for their leadership (again).

At a time when the reality of climate change, water shortages and deforestation are becoming ever clearer…why aren’t new companies leaping onto the leader board? 

But let’s have some discussion! Firstly, is this healthy? At a time when the reality of climate change, water shortages and deforestation are becoming ever clearer; when citizens seem disenfranchised from the dominant neo-liberal model of capitalism (globalisation); and when alternative truly sustainable business models are becoming tangible, There’s a timing thing. We are in the foothills of change, just too soon for a re-aligned marketplace with its attendant winners and losers to become clear. Perhaps by 2020 all will become clear? Or perhaps we ‘experts’ have become a little lazy, defaulting to the most charismatic businesses and leaders as the effort of understanding more deeply is too difficult.

Which takes us to a second point. The report lists the sustainability leaders from the turn of the century – 3M, Monsanto, Dow, Du Pont, BP, Novo Nordisk, Shell and Interface. Only Interface have navigated from that phase of leadership to this (well done guys). So of the current crop, who will lead when we enter the next phase (2025?) of leadership (truly sustainable business models)? Maybe we are all guilty of looking in the rear view mirror!

3. What makes a leader?

Again no surprises about what makes a sustainability leader. Visible leadership from the top, values, integration into the core business, supply chain management and transparency. None of us could disagree! But let’s pick out 3 trends from when experts were asked unprompted what made a corporate sustainability leader:

  • Integrating sustainability values went up from 11% in 2015 to 26% in 2017.
  • Part of core business/strategic approach went down from 22% in 2015 to 16% in 2017
  • Results/walk the talk went down from 12% to 6%

It feels like ‘experts’ are, again in troubled times, looking for vocal ‘prophets’ not down to earth doers!

Now these are just three definitions of leadership and all ‘experts’ have their own definition of what each of these questions might mean but put together these 3 trends just made me pause. Who can argue that integrating sustainability values is anything but a good thing and focus on how well this is done is really important. But it’s quite a nebulous thing! The two other questions, to me at least, are much more tangible (strategy/core business and results) and these have fallen significantly. It feels like ‘experts’ are, again in troubled times, looking for vocal ‘prophets’ not down to earth doers!

4. What is the role of Government and NGOs

Two thoughts here. Governments, agghhh (with the honourable exception of Germany!) you could do so much more with little effort to create market place certainty so business does most of the ‘heavy lifting’ and you reap the benefits of new jobs and growth, lower expenditure on health, greater global stability and community cohesiveness. What’s not to like!

Governments, agghhh (with the honourable exception of Germany!) you could do so much more…

NGOs, corporates can only envy your high levels of societal trust, well earnt, deserved and important for change. But…. don’t be complacent. The Report shows a static leadership board ripe for the same disruptive turmoil that business is entering. Don’t assume that today’s stability is for ever!

Let’s also offer a well done to the UN. It’s a big, complex organization hugely dependent on national governments for funding and action but the launch of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement show how effective it can be.

5. What does the future hold?

So turning to the future, what do the experts believe will happen? More of the same to a significant degree. More long term thinking, comprehensive integration, commitment to transparency and integrity. Again, who can disagree but again are we being complacent. Are we assuming that the sustainability journey that has worked for today’s very small number of ‘prophets’ (who remember are in the ‘foothills’ of sustainability!) is the one that will SCALE sustainability across the economy?

We will all have a view on what will really matter in the future so let’s suggest:

Customer – more focus on what your customers actually want (benefits) from sustainable products and services. Without them you have no business!

Competition/collaboration – the ability to walk seamlessly between competing and collaborating with the same entities

4th Industrial revolution – seizing the opportunity to use the 4th Industrial Revolution for good.

Creating an ecosystem – moving away from the concept of the siloed business to one that is a loose ‘federation’ of participants, whether suppliers. Communities, workers or suppliers working in a fluid ‘adult to adult’ way.

Leadership/skills – developing the workforce of the future that can cope with all of the above.

So thank you Globescan for another really useful report. Five takeaways are humbly offered without any belief that they are ‘right’ but hopefully they prompt some thinking. And finally a well done to the leaders, you are there but rights by let none be complacent about how different the future will be!

This article first appeared on Mike Barry’s LinkedIn page
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Mike Barry is Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at the UK retailer Marks & Spencer where he was part of the small team that developed the company’s groundbreaking Plan A; a 100 point, 5 year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues. You can follow Mike on twitter at @planamikebarry