The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Leaders Survey has tracked global expert opinion on the evolution of the sustainability agenda alongside the companies and organizations experts perceive to be leaders since 1997. In 2020, responses where collected between May and July as the global community was battling one of the worst public health crises in decades, the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to asking the regular tracking questions include each year, also the opportunity have been taken to ask questions about COVID-19 that would let us gauge expert opinion on how this unprecedented crisis may impact the sustainability agenda and leadership action.

More than 700 experts in 71 countries responded to the 2020 Leaders Survey this year. Unilever, Patagonia and IKEA once again have emerged as the most frequently recognized corporate leaders. For the tenth consecutive year, Unilever tops the ranking, recognized by 42 percent of respondents. Patagonia is in second place with 26 percent, while IKEA ranks third at 14 percent. Interface sits in the fourth position at 8 percent, continuing its run as the only company recognized in the top cohort of leaders in the 23 years this survey has taken place.

An exciting development this year is the entrance of four new companies: Microsoft, Ørsted, L’Oreal and Tata. US-based tech giant Microsoft and Denmark’s leading energy company Ørsted have been gaining particular recognition for their climate efforts. Meanwhile, India-based conglomerate Tata is establishing itself as a sustainability frontrunner in South Asia and joins Brazil-based Natura &Co as the second company not based in Europe or North America to be recognized in this select group.

Despite the exciting addition of these four new companies to the Leaders list, the overall reputation of the private sector remains bleak. Only 17 percent of respondents believe that companies are doing their part to advance the sustainable development agenda, with the private sector’s reputation steadily declining after peaking in 2018. Recognition of the United Nations’ efforts has declined slightly since last year also. This is in contrast with NGOs and academic institutions, which continue to be recognized for their outstanding efforts.

National governments, institutional investors and companies need to do much more to tackle the expanding list of global sustainability challenges, according to survey respondents. The experts also perceive that the urgency of sustainable development challenges is rising with all the issues tracked in this survey increasing in importance since last year. Climate change, biodiversity loss and water remain at the top of the list, while social issues such as poverty, inequality and lack of access to education are also increasingly recognized as requiring urgent solutions.

Given the immediate and likely long-term impacts of COVID-19, maintaining needed focus on long-term social and environmental priorities while battling the pandemic and undertaking recovery efforts will be difficult. Half of polled experts flag concern that the crisis is likely to lead to reduced attention for sustainability priorities, given the focus on economic issues and governmental budget constraints. At the same time, around one-third of experts are optimistic that the crisis will help renew focus on environmental issues because awareness of the interconnectedness of global challenges related to the environment and human health has heightened.

The pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of social issues such as unemployment, inequality and poverty. Companies are reevaluating the critical role that employees and other stakeholders play in their long-term success as well.

As public and private actors continue to deal with the impacts of the pandemic, experts advise companies to maintain focus on their sustainability strategies and goals, to accelerate their transitions to new business models that deliver long-term value, and to find new ways to anticipate and tackle complex risks. Successfully meeting such challenges will help businesses learn to overcome future disruptions while also making all our systems more resilient, healthy and lasting.

Download the report (pdf)