The poll asked 559 qualified sustainability experts from business, government, non-profits and academia to name large companies that are “committed to sustainable development, seeing strategic advantage in pursuing policies and actions which go beyond the requirements of environmental and social legislation.”
Unilever was chosen by 15 percent of respondents, followed by General Electric (12 percent), flooring company Interface (12 percent), Walmart (11 percent) and U.K. retail chain Marks & Spencer (8 percent).
There was significant regional variation in the responses. In North America, Walmart led the pack with 21 percent, followed by General Electric at 18 percent. In Europe Unilever and Marks & Spencer were the top two. But in emerging markets, Brazilian cosmetics company Natura was top-ranked.
The survey also found that a majority of sustainability experts believe that social entrepreneurs are the only leaders effectively advancing the sustainability agenda. Asked to rank the performance of various types of leaders in pushing this agenda in the past year, 57 percent said social entrepreneurs did an excellent job, compared to 49 percent for non-profit leaders, 40 percent for scientists, 24 percent for corporate leaders, 23 percent for leaders of multi-lateral organizations, and only six percent for government leaders.
The percent ranking corporate efforts as “excellent” did however rise, from 20 percent in 2010 and 21 percent in 2009.
Asked the reasoning behind their choosing one organization or another as leaders in sustainable development, 37 percent chose “commitment to sustainability values”, followed by 21 percent for “sustainable products/services/supply chain” and 14 percent for “integration into core business model”.
The research found that many of the corporate sustainability leaders, including GE, Marks & Spencer, Natura and Walmart, had built their reputations incrementally, posting gains over most of the last six years. But Unilever catapulted into the lead this year, exemplifying what the researchers called a “what have you done for me lately” mentality.
Last November the company launched its Sustainability Living Plan, setting more than 50 social, economic and environmental targets, with ambitions to cut the environmental footprint of its products in half, sustainably source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials, and help 1 billion people improve their health and well-being.
Last week Unilever Canada will become the single largest commercial purchaser of renewable power in that country, through a 59,000 MWh a year contract.
BP, on the other hand, was chosen by between 20 and 30 percent on respondents in 2004, 2005 and 2006. But its popularity plummeted in 2007 and continued sinking after that. This year – the first rankings since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – BP received 0 percent.