TORONTO: A survey of 887 experts from business, government, NGO and academia in 87 countries think Unilever, Patagonia, Interface and M&S are leaders in corporate sustainability.

For the fourth year in a row, and by the largest margin yet, Unilever comes out top with 33 percent of respondents (up eight points from 2013) identifying the company as a "leader in integrating sustainability into its business strategy."

Produced by Globescan and consultancy SustainAbility, the latest – and 20th survey - marks the evolution of the sustainability agenda and of the leaders and institutions most responsible for driving it forward. Top companies in the past two decades have included Dow, BP, Shell, Interface, Walmart and Unilever.

Co-authors Chris Guenther, director of Research at SustainAbility, anGlobeScan-SustainAbility-Survey-Sustainability-Leaders-2014d Eric Whalan, director of Sustainability at Globescan, note: "But, for all the nuances of how experts judge the relative leadership of companies, perhaps the bigger story is that they continue to see absolute leadership – of companies and governments, particularly – so thoroughly lacking. With companies calling for governments to set policies that will unlock a sustainable future, and politicians waiting for companies to lead the way, these are frustrating, if not dangerous, times.

According to the study, the most important corporate driver in the next four to five years will be competitive pressure – exceeding 'green consumerism' by a wide margin. Other factors will be full-cost accounting/pricing; life-cycle product stewardship standards; environmentally-motivated trade restrictions/actions; eco-labeling programmes; and ISO 14000 voluntary environmental standards.

The authors add: "The science is clear, the business case is strong, and the ethical obligations are obvious: we simply do not have another 20 years to achieve significant wins on pressing sustainability issues. We hope this report will spur not just dialogue, but more bold, near- term action that transforms value chains and affects positive social change around the world."

Following Unilever in the survey, nearly one in ten respondents mentioned Patagonia, seven percent mentioned Interface and six percent cited M&S. Other companies in the top 12 list include: Nestle, Natura, Nike, GE, Walmart, Puma, IKEA -  back in for the first time since 2004 - and Coca Cola.