As the world becomes increasingly politically polarized and some governments abandon sustainable initiatives, like US President Donald Trump’s announcement to pull out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, consumers are now looking towards CEOs and their companies to spearhead sustainability.

During the last quarter of 2017, our company, Alto Data Analytics, which specializes in public opinion analysis using big data and AI, conducted an analysis of digital opinions to understand what sustainability means to the American public. The analysis focused on the main challenges consumers expect CEOs to confront, as well which companies are currently setting the bar in sustainable practices. Alto Data Analytics collected 72 million data points from 3.2 million comments and 1.7 million interactions created by 1.3 million authors across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, forums, blogs, news and other digital sources in English and Spanish.

Authors focus attention on 5 key themes

We identified emerging narratives by connecting the topics authors discussed simultaneously and with a high frequency, as part of their spontaneous digital conversations. We spotted five key emerging narratives and themes of public interest: climate change, renewable energies, zero waste, environmental impact by consumption and UN sustainable development goals. Climate Change is top of mind, capturing 39% of the conversation, along with another 33 adjacent themes.

Image: Alto Data Analytics

The interconnection of the key themes revealed adjacent narratives such as gender, hunger, sustainable cities, the circular economy and how blockchain technology is impacting the environment. As the data visualization shows, zero waste is closely connected with the discussion around sustainable cities, the circular economy, sustainable investing and how blockchain is related to renewable energies in the context of technological impact.

Tech companies are shaping conversations around sustainability

By analysing the digital footprint of authors, visual representations show how their voices cluster in distinct communities and which authors have more influence. Authors are represented as nodes (i.e. profiles) of consumers, political organizations and brands.

The network visualization below connects the 758,040 most active authors through their 1,663,078 interactions in the form of re-tweets and replies within the public debate on sustainability. Our data shows that the conversation on sustainability is highly polarized. The blue community shows a tendency of nodes to cluster around politicized themes, driven by politicians and celebrity campaigning. This community represents 60.3% of all authors, mostly focused on Trump, Bernie Sanders and the Flint, Michigan, clean water crisis. The second community, shown in yellow and smaller in size, represents 19.9% of authors who focus on a non-political debate, including those from the private sector, around the key 5 themes previously identified.

Image: Alto Data Analytics

The analysis shows how some of the most influential nodes in the non-politicized community are consumer brands, with tech companies leading the way. By analysing which brands and initiatives are most mentioned in relation to sustainable practices, we discovered six key areas of consumer interest: Renewable Energies, Zero Waste, Sustainable Production, Save the Ocean, Protect the Forest and Clean the Rivers.

Consumers’ minds are being shaped primarily by tech companies investing in renewable energies directly connected to their businesses and the idea of the circular economy. Tesla, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, General Electric, Apple, Intel and Sony are among the top-mentioned brands related to sustainable practices.

Qualitative research also uncovered that consumers highly value CEOs who publicly endorse their company’s sustainability plans and actively join the digital debate. Initiatives that received high visibility in our analysis were Tesla’s use of solar panels and batteries to restore electricity at San Juan's children's hospital after Hurricane Maria and Pepsi’s zero-waste strategy with programs to educate and encourage students to recycle. Consumers are turning to CEOs in search of leaders that not only provide long-term commitments, but leaders who push their brands to catalyse consumers and other brands in new and collaborative ways. The top example from our research was Coca-Cola’s “Clean Coast Week” in Ireland, which had a strong digital echo in the US. Coca-Cola raised awareness of the importance of protecting our coastlines, encouraged more coastal clean-ups around the country and facilitated, through digital media, the recruitment of volunteers to clean their local beaches.

What makes an activist CEO?

Our research shows that companies in the tech sector are already leading sustainability - through renewable energies and zero-waste models of production - and are shaping consumers’ minds on how technology companies approach sustainability. Forty-two percent of the 80 most influential company profiles were from the tech sector and three out of the five top companies ranked by public opinion to be contributing the most to sustainability were tech companies: Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Image: Alto Data Analytics

Consumers expect companies to publicly lead the debate with both short-term and present strategies that deliver with long-term commitment. As demonstrated in the case of Starbucks, consumers pay attention to follow-through and highly value tangible initiatives catalysing consumer and other brands' actions.

CEOs must actively join the public discussion. Consumers expect CEOs to prioritize sustainability in operating their businesses, as our analysis shows. Consumers need role models and leaders especially when public opinion expresses disappointment that some governments are not prepared to make tangible commitments. There is a clear opportunity for CEOs to take responsibility by joining and leading the public debate on sustainability.