The Overlooked Sustainability Leaders in Business

corporate sustainability leaders, sustainability leaders, corporate social responsibility, The Conference Board, sustainability challengers, BrandLogic, UBS, Allianz, AstraZenica, technology companies, apple,
Allianz is an up and coming sustainability leader

Who are the real sustainability leaders in the business world? The various lists organizations have released in recent years, including here at TriplePundit, are always controversial, and sometimes our perceptions interfere with reality. Those of us old enough to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, cringe at the thought of considering ExxonMobil as “sustainable” in any way, shape or form. Apple, widely lauded as a good corporate citizen when it was the underdog during the 1990s, has attracted much criticism in recent years for good reason–but still enjoys a reputable image.

Technology companies are often seen as leaders, and TriplePundit has repeatedly showcased companies such as SAP, IBM, Dell, Intel and Cisco for their solid work on social and environmental issues. But who are the unsung heroes of the corporate sustainability movement? Last fall’s BrandLogic survey, and an analysis by The Conference Board, discuss some of the “challengers” who are emerging as true corporate sustainability leaders. Some of the companies may surprise you; others will be controversial. 

Using data from CRD Analytics and The Institute for Supply Management, BrandLogic’s study divided almost 100 companies into four groups: leaders, laggards, promoters and challengers. The study defined challengers as firms with good sustainability performance but low perception ratings. Among the up-and-coming “challengers” who perform well, but are just not communicating their work at the rate matching their achievements, include:

UBS: Its is difficult for any bank to gain the trust of the public these days, but UBS has a long record of social and environmental responsibility. Energy efficiency, responsible supply chain and a spirit of inclusiveness within the company are among UBS’s successes–and some of these programs date back to the 1970s. Citi, HSBC and Bank of America are additional financial institutions that rank in BrandLogic’s “challenger” category.

AstraZenica: Pharmaceutical companies are emerging as sustainability leaders, including AstraZenica. Like many of its competitors, the company has worked on expanding access to health care to those who need it the most; sensitivity towards research ethics; and supplier diversity are amongst the tools in AstraZenica’s CSR kit. Roche, Merck and Bayer also round out the pharmaceutical “challengers.”

Allianz: The Germany-based insurance giant has been on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index since 2000. A reputation for transparent carbon disclosure, investment in electric fleets and a hefty investment in training its employees boost Allianz’s reputation in the BrandLogic Survey–just not enough to qualify it as a “leader.”

Surprises? Companies we have covered at TriplePundit, and of which I personally think very highly, are amongst the challengers. HP, UPS, Nike and British Telecom are in this group.

And what may cause some consternation, a bevy of energy companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell–generally because of performance compliance, governance or social issues.

The gut reaction from corporate headquarters may be to push out those sustainability communications even more. But before these companies decide to bombard TriplePundit and other publications with more press releases about how they are doing good, they may want to consider who their audience really should be.

As a follow-on report by The Conference Board points out, there are certain groups where corporate social responsibility is key when it comes to making important decisions–especially on social issues, where stakeholders are becoming both much more aware and vocal. Investment professionals are basing decisions even more on all facets of a company’s performance, not just the financial. Purchasing managers are starting to favor suppliers who strive to become more sustainable. And recent university graduates, who are focused on melding business ambition with social good more than ever before, want to work within a company they believe shares their values. The confluence of more conscious investment, sustainable supply chain management and the need to attract talent indeed shows that corporate social responsibility means smart business.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will explore children’s health issues in India next month with the International Reporting Project.

[Image credit: Allianz]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

3 responses

  1. Thanks, Leon, for highlighting the challenges of picking sustainability leaders. It would have been better to see some evidence for the choice of companies you think highly of, including the “bevy of energy companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell” mentioned. Surprising indeed!

    1. I agree with Chris. I think there is a big and important difference between taking some sustainable actions and being a sustainable company, not to mention a sustainability leader. It’s one thing to forgive past sins, but many of these energy companies you mention continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths (e.g. tar sands, etc.) even as they reduce waste, etc.

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