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21st Century Sustainability Leadership

In (Leadership) Change of Heart, posted on Sustainable Brands in January, I explored some of the reasons Warren Buffett has become progressively more activist and outspoken on issues of responsibility and equity (See article here). In parallel, I suggested that that the transition from accepting sustainability issues to addressing them is a tremendously difficult thing for business leaders – as even once new information and worldviews are embraced, leaders’ ability to evolve their organizations is limited by context e.g. available skillsets, historic mindsets, consumer preference, investor expectations and the regulatory environment.

The Regeneration Project, a joint initiative of SustainAbility and GlobeScan, launched March 01 of this year. With the support of Sustainable Brands and many others including Presenting Sponsors BMW Group and SC Johnson, the program questions what kind of leadership will be required, especially from the private sector, to radically scale and accelerate development and deployment of solutions to the greatest sustainability challenges. And it holds that the actions taken in the next few years will determine much of what happens through at least 2100.

What Leadership Looks Like

Each week, from March through Rio+20 in June, a new Regeneration Project video is being released. Topics covered so far have included two segments on lessons from the 1992 Earth Summit (here and here), women’s empowerment, the need for global consensus and rethinking the global economic system

The April 12 Regeneration video carries the same title as this article – 21st Century Sustainability Leadership – and some of the intonations of the sustainability pioneers interviewed are striking. Achim Steiner of UNEP looks for leaders who are “cognizant and conscious of the signs of what is happening on our planet in terms of ecosystem stability.”  Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company calls for vision, as does Yolanda Kakabadse of WWF – but she stretches the timeframe, seeking leaders “looking into the next 100 years,” which she holds is necessary to make real change. And Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute challenges political and business leaders to understand and emulate the energy and effectiveness of grassroots campaigners.

Survey Says

The 2012 Sustainability Leaders, a GlobeScan / SustainAbility survey released March 28 finds that “…perceptions of sustainability leadership have declined or stalled for nearly all institutional actors – including corporations, governments, NGOs and social entrepreneurs – in the last 12 months.” This cannot be acceptable if the urgency of the agenda is anything as expressed above, and if delivering sustainable development in a generation truly matters.

The survey does highlight exceptions, with respondents from 76 countries singling out Unilever as the top corporate sustainability leader for the second year in a row, while Interface, GE, Patagonia and Walmart round out the top five.  But if respondents are isolating rare examples midst an environment where leadership overall is felt to be slipping or plain lacking, how do we move the whole?

Moral Capitalism

Howard Schultz recently offered one answer. At the recent Starbucks Annual General Meeting (and in a blitz of interviews including this one on CNN), Schultz used the pulpit offered by his status as founder, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks – and his success – to challenge other business leaders to deny his assertion that profitability is more than one of multiple measures of success.

Schultz’s claim that “the value of your company is driven by your company’s values” struck a particular cord that week because it came on the heels of the very public resignation in The New York Times of Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith. Smith labeled Goldman’s internal environment “toxic and destructive,” saying “the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.” The Times Joe Nocera suggested in his own op-ed that while Goldman’s actions may not be illegal, its “amoral, eat-what-you-kill capitalism…is one that most Americans instinctively find repugnant” and that Goldman CEO Blankfein might watch and draw lessons from Starbucks and Schultz’s approach.

Join Us

The Regeneration Project is a year-long, collaborative and multi-faceted initiative stemming from the notion and seeking to help address the fact that sustainable development progress has fallen far short of society’s needs in the twenty-five years since the Brundtland Commission released Our Common Future and the 20 years following the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The project will help to close the gap by fostering the renewed sense of urgency we believe required, and then prescribing a clear and actionable roadmap for future sustainability leadership, focusing in particular on the role of the private sector.

We don’t pretend for a moment that we can do this alone. With our sponsors and partners, we will undertake two rounds of global public and expert stakeholder opinion polling to define present leadership expectations, then workshop those expectations in a host of global salons running June-November in diverse cities worldwide. One of the first will be at SB12 in San Diego. To participate, please contact Chris Coulter of GlobeScan or Chris Guenther of SustainAbility. And even if you can’t join us in person, tell us your view: What are the primary obstacles to new forms of leadership favoring sustainability emerging? And what can we do to champion them?


Based in San Francisco, Mark has 15+ years experience in key leadership positions in the sustainability field. Mark possesses expertise in sustainability strategy and implementation as well as the systems, governance, public policy, accountability and stakeholder engagement aspects of this… [Read more about Mark Lee]