Will Sustainable Development Stay With Us? On attitudes and other drivers for sustainable development leadership

By Kees Zoeteman

Sustainability attitudes of key actors in government, corporations and NGOs have shaped the sustainable development movement over the past 25 years. This article discusses the prospects of this movement and the role of individual leaders in implementing its societal vision. The author argues that since the year 2000 the leadership role of governments has weakened, whereas sustainability initiatives from corporations and NGOs initiatives have increased and will continue to do so.

The success of the sustainable development movement

The crucial role of the 1987 Brundtland report1 of the UN Commission on Environment and Development was to bring together two issues that were aggravating since the end of World War II: the global environmental crisis and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.2 The report stated that environment and development were not opposing issues but two sides of the same coin. Economic development is only sustainable when preserving the environment. The Brundtland report very successfully put this new insight of the synergy between economic development and environmental preservation on the agenda of national governments. In hindsight, it is amazing that this report of more than 25 years ago is still a source of inspiration. It identified many wider issues than just the amalgamation of economic growth and prevention of environmental degradation. Through the necessary steps to prevent the further degradation of the natural carrying capacity of our planet, a new consciousness grew, leading to a, first implicit, revolution of our thinking and attitude. More and more people became aware of the consequences of our local actions for others at other places and times on the globe. This turned out to be the main driver of the sustainable development movement that gradually developed since the report’s presentation among corporations and civil society.3 Sustainable development as defined in the Brundtland report is still widening and deepening its scope in society. Often corporations or municipalities start by greening their economic initiatives through energy saving, carbon dioxide reduction and waste recycling. After this phase, they gradually become aware of the wider issues implied, integrating economic, environmental and social issues in project design and development. Sustainable development is more than only greening some suitable side-activities. Sustainable development moves gradually from the periphery of the organisation to the heart of production and product design and finally reaches the centre with the top executives. Now their attitude towards how they manage their internal and external relationships becomes an issue.

The Brundtland commission already identified that, besides the well-known responsibility of leadership for the needs of present as well as future generations, ‘in the end, sustainable development is a matter of individual people and comes down to making choices resting on the will to address the common future and make changes in human attitudes’. Have these human attitudes changed the past decades and where can we see proof of that?


This article first will discuss changes in the so-called ‘sustainability attitudes’ of governments and corporations and the impacts thereof. Subsequently it explores the future role of the sustainable development movement.


Sustainability attitudes

Market forces can promote sustainable development but they are, as pointed out, not the only important drivers. The core of sustainable development lays in the people – the initiators, entrepreneurs, board members, inventors and politicians – who take up the challenge of new initiatives and innovative responses to problems arising in society and markets.4 Another key driver is the behaviour of the group of conscious consumers and citizens, which demands new types of products and services from their corporations and governments. The common characteristic is that a new awareness of the interconnectedness of events and actions along product chains is driving behaviour. People have to respond to this interconnectedness by making inclusiveness part of their way of acting. The common characteristics of people, which constitute the global network of the sustainability movement, are found in what is called here their sustainability attitude (SA).5

Sustainable development is a matter of individual people and comes down to making choices resting on the will to address the common future and in human attitudes.

The SA of an actor is the revealed mind-set or mental code that potentially steers all physical behaviour of individuals or organisations. Attitudes represent the will to apply normative principles while satisfying needs. Beck and Cowan called such mind-sets value systems, which, as organising principles, pervade decision structures and cultural expressions.6



The concept of SA discerns a scale of five levels as defined in Table 1. These five levels identify the steps in consciousness needed to be able to move up the scale of SAs. Level 1, geared towards manifesting oneself and survival, is representing ego-centred behaviour. It changes into a level 2 attitude if one makes conscious what are common values from which one wants to profit. Such values become laws and regulations. Corporations with an SA level 2 try to weaken the laws before they are established. Governments with such an attitude use a command-and-control way of preparing and implementing laws. NGOs, mostly poorly organised in society at the first level, start to play a role in society at the second attitude level by opposing the interests of the powerful through aggressive actions in order to put their issues on the public agenda.

Transition to SA level 3 needs a new transformation of consciousness. At level 3, people with opposing interests open up their fixed positions to arrive, by consensus, at a mutually beneficial agreement. Here, mediators can help building the crucial commodity of trust among the stakeholders. How these conditions for consensus building can be provided and stimulated, is studied and practiced in detail by for example Susskind et al.7

The step to level 4 consciousness requires that stakeholders involved in a decision voluntarily internalise the interests of others. That is why this attitude is congruent with the attitude required to achieve sustainable development. It is not only trust, but also a felt responsibility for the community as a whole that is relevant at this level. Although governmental authorities are supposed to serve the whole, political differences and short-term concerns, such as being re-elected, often preclude a level 4 attitude. Front running corporations that operate globally show such attitudes as well as companies founded on a sustainability vision of the initiator. A good example of this attitude was the start of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).8 CSR developed since the 1970s after Edward Freeman (1984) introduced the term stakeholder for those impacted by a corporation beyond the shareholders.9 CSR is sometimes distrusted as just being a way to change public opinion. Deliberate ‘window dressing’ would certainly not represent a level 4 attitude. For those corporations where CSR became a social demand and standard of behaviour in terms of the equitable treatment of corporate stakeholders to which all businesses feel expected to conform, it represents lower SA levels. Since CSR has entered formal frameworks such as the ISO 26000 Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility (2010) and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2012) it may represent a level 3 or lower attitude.

Moving to a level 5 SA, a level not often realised, requires a social process in which all stakeholders move beyond distrust and voluntary responsibility. Otto Scharmer (2007) has demonstrated how the social method of ‘presencing’ can facilitate this highest SA level. It requires an open mind, open heart and open will and allows individuals, groups or organisations to connect to the highest potential of their emerging collective future.

Attitudes predict to a large extend behaviour. Behaviour completely expressing the attitude may not be realised in all circumstances. Lack of practical opportunity may result in underestimation of the real attitude level. Behavioural tests or inquiries can generate information on the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of actors. When this is not feasible, other sources, such as publicly available data including annual reports of companies and websites, can be used as an approximation. Especially social or legal behaviour, demonstrated by for example the implementation of international agreements by governments or voluntary membership of organisations with ethical codes of conduct by citizens or corporations, provide good indicators for assessing the SA.

Careful selection of a broad set of indicators minimises the risk of adopting orchestrated public images as corporate attitudes. For each indicator a classification congruent with the five SA levels is made. In case of a corporation the ‘human rights and child labour’ indicator is, for example, provided with the following descriptions of the five SA levels:

• No regard for human rights,
Only compliance with local law when enforced,
Preventive measures beyond legal requirements,
Cooperative agreements solving adjacent local problems,
Integrated responsibility for social and regional development together with NGO’s.

Subsequently the publicly reported performance of the actor for this indicator aspect is allocated to one of the five SA levels. This is done for in total some 15 indicators per actor. The average scores for the economic, ecological and social groups of indicators are calculated and the average of these three values is taken as the overall SA of the nation, corporation or other actor.

The SA provides the possibility to detect the conditions for the flourishing of the sustainable development movement and the role of government and business leadership.


The growing role of corporations

Studies have demonstrated diverging trends in national and corporate attitudes. In general, attitudes of nations are rather stable over the years, although the year 2000 seemed to be a culmination of the SA of nations such as the USA and Japan.10 China on the contrary has shown a rising SA since 2000, while the attitude decreased in India.

In comparison with the rather stable level of countries most corporations have demonstrated a steady increase in SA since 2000. This has been found in different industrial sectors, even in times of crisis.11



An illustration of this trend gives Figure 1, which is the outcome of a study of the airlines industry in the period of the SARS epidemic and the attack on the twin towers in New York. Both crises did not stop the overall trend towards higher attitude levels in this sector.12 Although SA of corporations has in general been rising, differences exist between sectors. Those sectors that are most exposed to media and public opinion are more aware of their sustainability image. Higher SA levels are therefore found for the chemical, oil and gas and food sectors than for instance for publishers and trade houses. Large corporations are more exposed than small ones. The financial sector, including banks and pension funds, has only recently started to pay more attention to their SA. A study of Wagenaar showed the impact of the SA on financial resilience of European banks during the financial crisis of 2008.13 Return on equity (ROE) during the period 2006 – 2009 relates positively with SA as Figure 2 illustrates. The average ROE was higher for the ten highest scoring banks on SA and remained positive also at the peak of this crisis in 2008.



The important personal role of CEOs and other managers in corporate SA is becoming more and more visible. Examples are the biographies of Aurelio Peccei (1908-1984), CEO of Fiat and initiator of the Club of Rome and of Ryuzaburo Kaku (1926- 2001), CEO of Canon from 1989-1999 and founding member of the Swiss-based Caux Round Table of business executives. Another very remarkable pioneer was Maurice Strong, CEO of Petro-Canada, director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and subsequently of the World Economic Forum, member of the Brundtland commission and Secretary-General of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm 1972, and of the UN Earth Summit on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992. It was Strong who inspired Stephen Schmidheiny, CEO of Eternit Switzerland, to convince other industrialists to join in the Rio conference. Schmidheiny abandoned the use of asbestos in his company and started the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. Many CEOs have followed this path and, after a personal transformation, completely changed their corporations by demonstrating and implementing SA level 4 and generating a wave of innovative approaches.


Will major trends stop the sustainability movement?

An important question is whether sustainable development will remain high on the agenda of governments and corporations. In answering this question the impact of some major trends can be helpful.

Before commenting on the outlook, an explanation is sought for the major shift in sustainability leadership from governments to corporations, which has been taking place since 2000. This shift became visible in the lack of new governmental commitments at the Rio+10 and Rio+20 summits and growing commitments from the business sector at these conferences.

Several recent trends are likely to be responsible for this shift. Globalisation has boosted economic growth for those connected to the global economic system. The result is a growing interconnectedness of business sectors and national economies. Should crises arise, the blessing of the interconnected system may become a curse. What starts as a national problem can also affect the global system. Examples of such crises are the outbreak of contagious diseases, natural disasters and in particular financial crises, as the world has experienced since 2007.

The experienced negative consequences of globalisation generated a movement in favour of nationalism across Europe. As a result, European governments who traditionally promoted the subject of sustainable development are now less visible in this field.

Since 2000, citizens and consumers are receiving much more real-time information on issues of political or commercial interest, which means national governments have lost their information monopoly. This has degraded their authority and autonomy. At the same time corporations are exposed to immediate consumer feedback, e.g. by consumer boycotts of the company brand. The result is that governments can be more relaxed about sustainability concerns in society than corporations can.

Politicians generally have a window of a few years until the next election. For this purpose, their actions often emphasise the short-term concerns of the electorate and their country. CEOs, however, pay attention to the long-term influences of their company strategy too. They cannot simply blame previous management for mistakes. Moreover, multinational corporations also have a long-term interest in a sustainable development of the global community.

The financial and subsequent economic crises in OECD countries, and specially the EU, have absorbed the immediate attention of these governments and reduced their budgets for sustainability concerns. The leaders of multinational corporations have been less concerned with the economic crisis in OECD countries as they are active in other parts of the world as well, where economic growth still is forceful. Thus, CEOs have gained power where national politicians are losing power. Corporations are continuously economically outgrowing nations. According to Fortune, in 2012 Wal-Mart was economically stronger than Norway and Exxon Mobile was stronger than Thailand. These changes gradually affect the roles of nations and corporations.

Overall, politicians have been losing credibility as problem solvers since 2000, while the CEOs of corporations have more and more control. These trends are expected to continue. Governments are forced into a nationalistic fight when crises over scarce resources such as water, fish stocks, minerals etc. arise. Only under conditions of a common threat, such as a virus epidemic, aggravated climate change or terrorism, a common approach among governments is to be expected. Especially in times of crisis, national governments will prioritise other issues than sustainable development. This means that sustainable development will increasingly be in the hands of corporations and NGOs, while governments will limit themselves to the facilitation of the conditions for private initiatives.

Finally, one may ask why businesses would continue to pay attention to sustainable development if government is moving towards other pressing problems.

The trends presented here increase the need for corporations to pick up sustainability challenges as they are learning that solving societal needs is their ultimate license to operate. Therefore, the sustainable development movement will continue to mobilise civil society in the coming decades and will remain a priority for leaders of corporations.

About the Author

Kees Zoeteman is professor for Sustainable Development at Tilburg University, Tilburg School of Economics and Management, The Netherlands. He was previously deputy Director-General for Environment at the Ministry for Environment in the Hague and chaired the Board of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark from 2000-2004. From 1992-2002 he was member of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development in Beijing. Presently his work focuses on sustainability issues in communities and corporations. He recently published and edited the book Sustainable Development Drivers (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2012), which is the major source for this article.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.