Last month, in Davos, Switzerland, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) launched its new platform for corporate sustainability leadership – Global Compact LEAD.

Leading light

With a name like a high efficiency lightbulb, it’s hoped LEAD will indeed shed light on how companies can drive sustainability transformation in this critical phase out to 2020.

While many organizations are still struggling to come to grips with implementing the Global Compact in its most basic form, LEAD takes it to the next level.

Designed to challenge those companies already strongly committed to the UNGC, LEAD aims to drive integration of the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership – the roadmap for future evolution unveiled at the Global Compact Leaders Summit in June 2010.

Incubator

Through LEAD, it’s hoped companies will embrace new levels of performance and ambition in tackling the world’s social, environmental and economic challenges. A forum for experimentation, innovation and knowledge sharing, participants will be expected to demonstrate strong engagement at global and local levels to implementing the Blueprint. As well as encouraging leadership, LEAD will serve as “an incubator for collective action … to address challenges and dilemmas that no entity or sector can solve alone.”

Among the benefits: leadership recognition, increased CEO visibility and voice; privileged access to expertise and leading intelligence; UN insight; and even individualized assistance from the Global Compact’s staff.

The nifty fifty

So far, 54 companies have joined up. All have an existing history of engagement with the UNGC – and have committed to implement the Blueprint and share their learnings along the way. Progress will be documented in their Communications on Progress (COPs).

To participate in LEAD, companies need to meet at least one of the following criteria:

  1. demonstrate global leadership by contributing to a UNGC issue working group, LEAD collective action initiative or working group;
  2. demonstrate local leadership by engaging with the steering committees, working groups and network events of UNGC local networks, especially in non-OECD countries; and
  3. outline their efforts to implement the Blueprint in their Communication on Progress (COP), in line with, or beyond, the Advanced level of the COP differentiation programme.

All three criteria need to be met to continue as members after the first year. LEAD is a fee-based platform, ranging from USD10,000 to $65,000, depending on level of annual sales/revenue.

Pilot light

2011-2012 will be a pilot phase, during which Global Compact LEAD projects, programs and services will be refined by members, with the active involvement of other stakeholder groups.

The creation of LEAD coincides with the launch of the Global Compact Differentiation Framework, which distinguishes between companies’ implementation of the UNGC according to size and experience, based on three levels of reporting: Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. Tools and resources will be available for each level, with the aim of making benchmarking of sustainability performance and reporting easier.

Plurality

The introduction of levels and differentiation within the Global Compact is a sign of its success and maturity. Clearly those companies that really get behind the integration of the Compact and its Blueprint, deserve recognition.

But it’s equally important that the search for recognition doesn’t become an end in itself – a sustainability badge hunt. There are plenty of highly committed companies that aren’t among the 54 LEAD members, yet who are doing great things: best practice leadership needs to be recognized in all its forms and forums. Likewise, the complexity of sustainability challenges means there isn’t a single right answer: LEAD is only one of many possible crucibles of innovation. My hunch is the future belongs more to open networks than exclusive clubs.

Another issue for LEAD companies to consider is how effectively this forum can handle important questions that fall outside the traditional scope of the Global Compact (human and labor rights, environment and anti-corruption) and UN agencies – such as sustainable consumption and the policing of non-signatories.

These challenges are just as deserving of highly energy efficient enlightenment.