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Leon Kaye headshot

As COVID-19 Further Exposes Global Challenges, These Companies Lead on Sustainability

A new study ranks corporate leaders in sustainability and outlines the challenges experts believe are most crucial during the COVID-19 crisis.
By Leon Kaye

Sustainability rankings aren’t all that different from political polls. We can go back and forth over the methodologies, why the questions were framed in such a way and how the questions are asked, all at the rapid pace of a hamster spinning on a wheel. But during any era, including the current COVID-19 crisis, both can offer a snapshot of how society, politicians or companies are performing at a particular moment in time.

This is certainly true of a
recent study taken on by GlobeScan and SustainAbility. Researchers queried several hundred experts across dozens of countries to gauge the largest problems confronting humanity — and the companies that are leading by how they have responded in kind.

Respondents were asked to name three companies they viewed as leaders, and the list isn't much of a surprise. Unilever once again topped the ranking, followed by Patagonia, Ikea and Interface. But new companies also scored mentions, including Microsoft, L’Oréal and dirty-turned-clean-energy giant Ørsted.

Unilever stood out as the fast-moving goods titan led in mentions worldwide; the exception was in Latin America, where Brazil-based Natura & Co., a personal care and cosmetics conglomerate, outpaced the rest of the field. This survey also highlights how even during a time of crisis, Unilever and Patagonia have endured as sustainability leaders, year after year. Much of this has to do with how well companies can adapt — and the experts GlobeScan and SustainAbility queried said both companies performed well, at a rate of almost 90 percent, based on their abilities to plan and execute strategy.

This joint study also presents a veiled warning to companies: Just because we’re in the midst of a pandemic does not mean other global challenges can be swept under the rug. Survey respondents almost uniformly agreed that problems including climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and pollution, poverty, and plastic waste were still of “urgent” concern. And that makes sense, considering the evidence suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic has its roots in ecological imbalances.

“The 2020 survey makes clear what the private sector must do to increase resilience and the ability to withstand future shocks in the wake of COVID-19: embed environmental sustainability and ESG in strategy, develop new and sustainable business models, improve risk management and business continuity planning, and transform supply chains,” said Mark Lee, executive director of SustainAbility. “The time to act is now.”

What’s also important to remember is that it’s not only about how companies communicate their sustainability work, but also to whom they direct their messaging. It’s no accident Unilever and Patagonia emerge as leaders time and again. Consumers not only hear, but listen, to these businesses. One company has reached millions of people with its handwashing campaigns; the other has not been shy about how it feels about the current U.S. presidential administration.

Image credit: Gelani Banks/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye