A global survey of predominantly senior sustainability practitioners – from business, civil society, and academia – points to a leadership vacuum, such that critical issues related to sustainability are being ignored or inadequately addressed by both government and business leaders.
The survey was among topics discussed at a symposium and celebration titled “What Next for Sustainability” at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, DC. Circle of Blue’s Keith Schneider moderated the panel discussion which followed.
The joint SustainAbility/GlobeScan survey was conducted on-line by GlobeScan, to identify drivers and obstacles to the global sustainability agenda.Fully seventy-five percent of 2,158 respondents view “current efforts of governments, businesses, and multilateral organizations” as being “very or mostly inadequate.” Firms such as GE, Shell, Novo Nordisk, and Patagonia nonetheless are recognized as “leading in this area.”
Conversely, among those willing and able to identify a specific company that they perceive to be a poor performer as regards sustainability, 35 percent labelled ExxonMobil as such, with second and third mentioned firms lagging far behind at 10 percent.
In the context of mounting public concern for the full range of environmental issues, the findings uncover a major opportunity for leadership in this challenging arena. According to research conducted by GlobeScan across 20 countries environmental concerns among the general public now rank third globally, on average, behind unemployment and economic problems.”
For all the buzz today about sustainable this and that, active practitioners realize that to lock-in progress that will endure over a generation, leadership is essential today,” according to Jonathan J. Halperin, Director of Research & Advocacy in the Washington office of SustainAbility.
Nearly fifty percent of respondents identify the “culture of consumption” as a “significant barrier” to advancing the sustainability agenda over the past twenty years. Yet, these experienced respondents (with more than half having 5 or more years of experience), also rate the performance of business leaders much more highly than that of national elected leaders. Over a third of respondents rate the performance of government leaders as being very poor, while only 13% hold this dour view of business leaders. Civil society leaders receive the highest marks, with nearly fifty percent of respondents seeing their performance as excellent or good.”
The jury is still out and awaiting more evidence on corporate performance,” according to Halperin. “People with experience think business can and should lead, but they won’t be bamboozled.” Asked whether the current increase in communications about sustainability is “tactical and temporary” or “authentic (and) long-lasting,” a mere 3% opted for fully authentic, while the vast majority cluster in the somewhat undecided middle.
In an aggressively worded question in this US presidential election year, an overwhelming seventy-two percent of respondents hold the view that “the dominance of US power in the world … significantly inhibits progress toward sustainability.”
“Sustainability is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” according to Halperin, “but it is a deeply political issue. Are our children going to hate us or thank us for the world we deliver to them? Are we going to figure out how to live sustainably or are we going to keep stealing from the next generation?”
Established in 1987, SustainAbility is a strategic business consultancy and independent research center that helps clients actively manage the risks and opportunities associated with corporate responsibility and sustainable development, devising solutions to social and environmental challenges that deliver long-term value to business and society. With offices in London and Washington, and operations as well in Zurich and New York, SustainAbility works with business and through markets in pursuit of a just and sustainable world for present and future generations.
GlobeScan Incorporated is a global public opinion and stakeholder research consultancy with offices in Toronto, London, and Washington. GlobeScan conducts custom research and annual tracking studies on global issues. With a research network spanning 50+ countries, GlobeScan works with global companies, multilateral agencies, national governments, and non-government organizations to deliver research-based insights for successful strategies.
Circle of Blue provides relevant, reliable, and actionable on-the-ground information about the world’s resource crises.