Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Lauren Zanolli headshot

Survey: In the 'Mainstreaming' CSR Era, Unilever Rules (And Polman is the King)


Globescan and SustainAbility released the 20th edition of their sustainability leadership survey, and most of the results are largely unsurprising. According to the responses of more than 800 people working in business, government, NGOs and academia in 89 countries, industry stakeholders have all but completely lost faith in the government’s ability to create change, the Rio conventions don’t matter and technology is becoming one of the most promising sustainability drivers. But one statistic from the survey results, which were recorded in March, does stand out — Unilever’s 22-point margin lead in the corporate ‘sustainability leadership’ category.

The Anglo-Dutch corporation is well-known for its sustainability efforts, but even report authors seemed a bit surprised by Unilever’s dominance in that category, which asked which companies best integrated sustainability into their business practices. With 33 percent of the vote — an eight point increase over last year — 2014 marks the fourth year in a row that the company nabbed the number one spot. Patagonia followed in second place with just 9 percent of the vote.

“We need to find ways for other companies to play a role and be recognized for it,” said Chris Guenther, one of the report’s authors, in a webinar presentation on Wednesday.

Other top companies in the corporate leadership category included Interface, Marks & Spencer and Nestlé. Walmart, Puma, Coca-Cola and Ikea — in its leaderboard debut — rounded out the top-12 list with 3 percent of the vote each.

But no one came close to catching Unilever, which held the top spot with the widest margin of votes in the 20-year history of the Globescan survey.

So what is Unilever’s secret to being  the hands-down leader among sustainabilty stakeholders? And what do they have to do to last at the top spot in a notoriously fluid landscape?

Unilever’s global business focus and vocal marketing efforts are two factors working in the company’s favor, Guenther and Chris Colter, CEO of Globescan and report co-author, said on Wednesday. Unilever’s sales growth is increasingly driven by emerging markets, and it has focused some of its more visible sustainability and health efforts — like a public handwashing campaign in Asia, Africa and Latin America — in those markets. In the Globescan/SustainAbility survey, the company was top-ranked by experts in every region except Oceania and Latin America.

While the survey didn’t dig into respondants’ reasons for voting on each company, Colter also points to Unilever’s messaging approach as a possible differentiator. The company’s messaging “is not just about ‘look how great Unilever is’,” said Colter, and instead broadcasts a more genuine-feeling focus on “changing business models and business culture,” he said.

But Unilever’s real secret ingredient might actually lie in its charismatic CEO. “The emotional appeal of Paul Polman is striking and influences this quite significantly,” said Colter. Polman is known for his ability to gain consensus among both the sustainability crowd and traditonal business concerns. The result is an effect that is “hard to duplicate in other companies because of the uniqueness of his leadership, but it's one of those elements that goes beyond the [company’s sustainability] framework,” he said.

Backed by 20 years of industry surveys, Globescan and SustainAbility charted the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) through roughly three distinct eras. Their polls show an extremely fluid landscape, where companies fall in and out of favor with the sustainability crowd. Companies that are now in the CSR gutter, like Monsanto and BP, were among the highest-rated just a decade ago. Besides Unilever, the only company to hold the top spot in the survey for more than two consecutive years was Shell, at number one from 1999 through 2004 and now not even among the top 12.

Report authors call the first wave of prominent CSR efforts, beginning in the 1990s, the  age of “do no harm.” This was led by energy and chemical companies — like Shell, BP and Dow — that focused on risk managmenet and minimizing environmental impact. Around 2007, the authors noted, this approach gave way to a “mainstreaming” strategy in response to increased consumer awareness of sustainability issues. Consumer product companies — like Walmart, GE and Patagonia, which are some of the top survey performers in the past six years — have deployed high-profile, branded sustainability campaigns that target ambitious goals and focus on consumers, as well as supply chains.

Now, say the report’s authors, companies at the forefront of CSR, like Unilever, are further refining their strategies into a new type of approach that they dub “extended leadership.” In order to stay at the top of the CSR heap, they say, companies will have to not only integrate sustainability into the supply chain, but also be a vocal advocate for sustainability-related action on a public and political level.

More broadly, as governments around the world disappoint on environmental and social action, the private sector is increasingly seen as the lynchpin of sustainability efforts. Indeed, 56 percent of survey respondents said that business will be a major driver of sustainability progress in the next five years, just behind technology at the top spot with 60 percent of the vote.

The “extended leadership” approach could be a crucial tool in affecting systems-wide change. But as we see companies rise and fall on sustainability performance over the years, is expecting advocacy beyond the realm of business just wishful thinking?

Image credi: Globescan/SustainAbility

Lauren Zanolli headshotLauren Zanolli

Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and lauren.zanolli@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Lauren Zanolli

More stories from Leadership & Transparency