Why sustainability leadership requires advocacy

Corporations can boost sustainability efforts by calling on the government to implement policy measures needed for sustainable economies, says JP Leous.

Businesses must work closely with governments to fix the policy and investment roadblocks that are holding back sustainable economic development. Image: Eurobanks / Shutterstock.com

The continued downward slide of government leadership in driving the sustainability agenda forward, coupled with lackluster policy and advocacy engagement from the private sector, is the inconvenient truth revealed in this year’s GlobeScan / SustainAbility Survey, The 2014 Sustainability Leaders.

While a clear majority of experts see collaboration with governments as the “most effective” approach companies can take to creating pro-sustainability policies, less than a third believe companies will engage in this manner, as noted in our 2012 Collaborating for a Sustainable Future report.

Business leaders are aware of this concerning state of affairs: only 33 percent of CEOs surveyed in the 2013 UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO study believe business is doing enough to address key sustainability issues. This is especially disconcerting considering the dire scientific evidence and humanitarian crises that demand greater corporate sustainability leadership.

One key, often under-discussed weapon in the corporate sustainability arsenal is advocacy — specifically, leveraging corporate government relations teams to consistently spearhead change at a systems level. Despite progress made by initiatives spearheaded across the private sector, from ecoMagination to Plan A, it is widely acknowledged that key policy shifts are required to unlock the innovation and investments necessary to creating truly sustainable economies and communities. In fact, 83 percent of CEOs see government policymaking as “critical” to sustainability progress.

One key, often under-discussed weapon in the corporate sustainability arsenal is advocacy — specifically, leveraging corporate government relations teams to consistently spearhead change at a systems level.

With millions of people literally made ill by unjust and unsustainable “value” chains, it’s time CSOs and corporate government relations departments practice CPR: connect, prioritize, retool.


Many government relations professionals do not have regular, ongoing dialogues with their sustainability colleagues. As a result, they are often unaware of how to best support key sustainability objectives. As a first step, we need to get these professionals talking to each other.


Government relations’ priorities are often dominated by managing regulatory risk and securing favorable economic incentives for their company. However, if we are to tap into the true potential of corporate sustainability leadership, these priorities must broaden (or shift) to address systems-level issues that are at the heart of sustainability crises. From agriculture policies that stymie the development of local food systems to energy regulations that thwart the expansion of clean energy, opportunities for corporate sustainability leaders to engage policymakers on the big-ticket items will move us from incremental improvements to game-changing progress.

That said, like any business unit, government relations will focus on the short list of priorities it receives from above. As such, senior leadership needs to prioritize sustainability objectives as a core piece of government relation’s mission.


Advocacy and engaging governments are some of the most effective ways for companies to drive transformative change and unlock the promise of sustainability. Retooling government relations departments to embrace this role is key to success. The vast majority of corporate government relations staff are talented policy wonks and political insiders with a host of skills — but rarely do these teams include sustainability experts. Arming government relations teams with the personnel, resources and relationships necessary to drive sustainability-focused campaigns is critical.

Looking back at sustainability leadership, we’ve seen a transition from B2B dominance (think Dow, DuPont and BP mitigating risk and improving environmental health and safety performance) to the proliferation of B2C initiatives that have responded to and shaped the expanding concept of corporate sustainability.

The next phase of sustainability leadership no doubt will be claimed by those who help fix the policy roadblocks currently in our way.

JP Leous is a Senior Manager at SustainAbility. This post originally appeared on the SustainAbility blog.

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