June 6, 2012

International Polls Of Sustainability Experts And The Public Emphasize Growing Need For Private Sector Leadership On Sustainable Development

8 in 10 experts fear that governments will not take action short of catastrophe


LONDON – As world leaders prepare to gather at the G20 and Rio+20 conferences later this month, two major global surveys released today by GlobeScan and SustainAbility find that expert and public confidence in national governments when it comes to governments’ ability to tackle global economic, environmental and social challenges are at severe lows. The findings suggest national governments will not take action unprompted - and that business has a unique ability to play a greater role in addressing sustainable development. Nearly eight in ten (77%) sustainability experts think a major catastrophe will need to occur for national governments to take action, and 68% identify a lack of political will as the greatest obstacle to making further progress on sustainable development.

The surveys are part of a series of initiatives by The Regeneration Roadmap in the lead up to Rio+20, a cross-sectoral collaboration that aims to accelerate progress in the transition to sustainable development. The findings are derived from an expert survey of 1,603 sustainability experts across corporate, government, NGO, and academic sectors in 117 countries and a public opinion survey of over 24,000 people in 23 countries.

The role of business in spurring government action on sustainability will be crucial. “Working with governments to establish a regulatory environment that supports sustainable development” (33%) is the second most frequent response among experts asked how the private sector can best contribute to sustainable development, after contributing technology and innovation (41%). Government experts are even more likely to highlight the need for business to collaborate with government (42%).

“The surveys make it clear that society has greater expectations for business than it did [at Rio] in 1992,” said Dr. Rainer Feurer, Senior Vice President Corporate Strategy, Planning and Environment at BMW Group, a presenting sponsor of The Regeneration Project. “We think that those who see this as an opportunity rather than as a challenge will prevail in the long run. This is why the BMW Group strategically focuses on sustainable mobility solutions.”

“Based on The Regeneration Roadmap’s recent poll data, it’s clear that there is much to do as we look ahead in terms of sustainability leadership,” said Kelly M. Semrau, Chief Sustainability Officer at SC Johnson, also a presenting sponsor of The Regeneration Project. “SC Johnson believes that we all have a role to play, from public and private sector, and we’re going to need to work together to set clear goals, priorities and action plans.”

“We find ourselves in a very challenging dynamic,” said Chris Coulter, President of GlobeScan. “Both the global public and experts have low expectations for governments to provide the necessary leadership to move us toward a sustainable footing, yet we need governments engaged to make progress quickly. It likely falls on business to not only continue to transform the economy but also cajole governments into action.”

Mark Lee, Executive Director of SustainAbility, comments: “Our polls underscore the gravity of the sustainable development challenge and make it clear that business can contribute by supporting policy that accelerates sustainability progress, sharing technology and improving its own performance – actions which will close the trust gap faced by business regarding its own performance record.”

Additional findings from the surveys

A sense of system breakdown: Nearly eight in ten (78%) sustainability experts believe the current economic system must be substantially overhauled and a similar percentage (77%) say that major catastrophes will need to occur before governments will act on sustainability.

New and collaborative models of leadership are key, including social movements and cross-sector partnerships - but government must be involved: Asked to rate the contribution of major societal actors on sustainability since the 1992 Earth Summit, 33% of experts rated the contribution of multi-sector partnerships to sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit as “good” or “excellent” - far higher than either government or business alone.

Failing grades on society’s progress since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992: A matter of weeks before the Rio+20 Earth Summit, fewer than half of the 24,000 citizens surveyed believe that society has become better at protecting the environment, improving economic wellbeing, and creating healthier and more equitable societies. Experts share this view for the most part, but were even more negative on health and equity.


About the Global Public Opinion Survey

Representative samples of approximately 1,000 adults per country in 23 countries (n=24,441) were interviewed face-to-face or by telephone between December 2011 and February 2012. Questions were rated by half samples in all countries. Polling was conducted by GlobeScan and its research partners in each country. In Brazil, China, Indonesia, Kenya, and Turkey, urban samples were used. The margin of error per country ranges from +/- 2.9 to 4.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

About the Survey of Sustainability Experts

The findings are drawn from a GlobeScan / SustainAbility survey of sustainability experts across corporate, government, NGO, academic, research, and service / media organizations in 117 countries. From mid-April to mid-May 2012, a total of 1,603 experts were surveyed online by GlobeScan, SustainAbility and The Regeneration Roadmap partners—ICMM, UNEP, Civicus, WBCSD, World Bank, CBSR, and GLOBE. Participants comprise a highly-experienced respondent pool: 58 percent have more than ten years of experience working on sustainability issues; 31 percent have five to ten years of experience; 12 percent have three to four years of experience.

Sustainability Expert Findings


Fundamental system rethink is required, according to experts


QUESTION WORDING: Below are pairs of statements that capture some current sustainable development debates. For each pair, please select the statement that is closer to your opinion. 

Experts are pessimistic on government’s ability to be proactive


QUESTION WORDING: Below are pairs of statements that capture some current sustainable development debates. For each pair, please select the statement that is closer to your opinion.

National governments receive the worst performance ratings from experts when it comes to contributing to SD


QUESTION WORDING: How would you rate the performance of each of the following types of organizations in terms of its contribution to progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio?

Sustainability experts identify lack of political will as the most significant barrier to progress


QUESTION WORDING: The Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and specifically its Agenda 21 document, provided an agenda for action toward sustainability. Please indicate which three of the following you think are the most significant barriers to progress on Agenda 21.

While we have made progress economically and environmentally in the past 20 years, experts believe we have lost ground socially


QUESTION WORDING: How would you rate society’s progress globally in the past twenty years on the following challenges?


Global Public Opinion Survey Findings


The global public rates scientists and NGOs as making most progress on SD; governments viewed most negatively


QUESTION WORDING: How well would you say each of the following institutions are doing in helping make progress on these economic, social and environmental challenges? How about [ ], is it doing a very good job, a good job, a poor job or a very poor job?

Globally, people believe only moderate progress has been made since the first Earth Summit...


QUESTION WORDING: For each of the following challenges, please tell me whether you think it has got better, got worse, or stayed about the same over the last twenty years. Is that a lot or somewhat better/worse?

…but a large degree of optimism among the global public that further progress will be made in the next 20 years


QUESTION WORDING: And how optimistic or pessimistic are you that leaders will make progress in addressing each of these challenges over the next twenty years? How about…?

GlobeScan Foundation

The GlobeScan Foundation is dedicated to helping achieve a more sustainable and just world for all. To accomplish this we develop and apply a range of social science tools to give voice to global publics, help unlock collaboration and accelerate progress. Learn more here