Sustainability leaders have earned respectability over the years. Now that sustainability is becoming a mainstream phenomenon, they are gradually being recognized for their contributions. Many of the sustainability pioneers will be venerated by future generations. The word is derived from peonier, an Old French word for foot soldier. These pioneering men and women have broken ground, laid the foundation, and cut a path that others can follow. A few names stand out for their audacity and the scope of their visions.
The search firm Weinreb Group polled 100 sustainability experts to create a list of six leading sustainability pioneers. These people are named in a report called Pioneers of Sustainability. They are evenly divided between thought leaders (first three) and chief executive officers (second three).
1. Paul Hawken, entrepreneur, and author
2. Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor
3. Peter Senge of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Society of Organizational Learning
Ellen Weinreb and James Epstein-Reeves identify the common traits of the six pioneers:
“In addition to being inspiring voices of support for sustainability, their advocacy has had major ripple effects beyond the four walls of the organisations they represent or the covers of the books they have written … They are able to translate what idealists dream of and pencil-pushers demand into a common vision and a way forward. They are blazing trails for how business can create value for stakeholders and shareholders … and doing so with boldness, visionary thinking, passion, and courage.”
In a Guardian article, Marc Gunther elaborated on these picks and added a few of his own. Gunther lists Lee Scott for his efforts at Walmart. This is a dubious pick and Gunther freely admits that this is a “deeply flawed company” premised on selling huge volumes of cheap stuff. Nonetheless, he points to Walmart’s decision to purchase Marine Stewardship Council-certified fish and reduced packaging. He also cites the pressure Walmart brought to bear throughout its vast supply chain to reduce carbon and water usage. If nothing else Scott has demonstrated that sustainability is a key success factor even for a behemoth like Walmart.
Gunther mentions Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard who is discussed in detail below. He also added the name of Al Gore for putting sustainability on the map through the release of a book and his movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. Gore used his political stature to reach out and help inform corporate America. Other sustainability pioneers mentioned by Gunther include:
Barry Commoner, ecologist
Herman Daly, economist,
John Mackey of Whole Foods,
Jeff Immelt of GE.
Here are the sustainability pioneers that made the Green Market Oracle’s lists of sustainability pioneers. Michael Braungart deserves to be mentioned as he is the author of Cradle to Cradle, arguably one of the most important books on sustainability ever written.
Both the Weinreb Group and Gunther put Paul Hawken at the top of the list for good reason. Hawken will always be remembered for his pioneering effort to demonstrate that business is not only the cause of the world’s environmental problems it can also be a powerful ally in efforts to address the environmental damage that they have caused. Hawken is famous for a line he uttered more than a quarter century ago:
“Business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation.”
Hawken’s influence has been far-reaching and it includes Interface’s Ray Anderson who said that reading The Ecology of Commerce inspired him to remake his carpet manufacturing company into a
The former CEO of Interface, the late Ray Anderson will be remembered for being a sustainability pioneer long before the idea had currency. More than three decades ago Anderson launched Mission Zero® in which he pledged to get all of Interface’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. Interface currently derives 96 percent of the power they use from renewables. Interface is among the most energy-efficient companies in the world and they have achieved all three of its major goals: Footprint Reduction, Product Innovation, and Culture Change.
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has distinguished himself as a sustainability pioneer for a wide range of reasons that include but are not limited to his leadership at Tesla. Musk is a prime example of a successful business mind that sees real value in sustainability. Musk’s leadership includes EVs (Tesla Motors), solar (Solar City), battery storage (Powerwall), the hyperloop, and space travel, Musk is an innovator who is successfully leveraging technology for societal betterment. “We must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy,” Musk said, “or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn, and civilization will collapse.”
Musk was quick to provide renewable energy infrastructure to Puerto Rico after the island territory was decimated by two hurricanes. He also offered his assistance to help rescue a group of boys trapped in a cave in Thailand. Now he is focusing his energies on helping people to gain a living wage. Musk has also pushed back against Trump’s wrong-mindedness.
A truly ground-breaking pioneer is Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia is arguably the world’s most sustainable company and Chouinard will be remembered as one of the first truly sustainable CEOs. He walks the talk as few others do. He has ingrained sustainability into the DNA of his company. “When we make a decision because it’s the right thing to do for the planet, it ends up also being good for the business,” Yvon Chouinard wrote in his book “Let My People Go Surfing”.
His commitment to social and environmental justice is legendary. Chouinard was asking and answering all the difficult questions long before corporate sustainability was a thing. He questioned growth and demanded that his business valued its employees in a way that few others have. He also integrated planetary health into the core of his business model. He made waves by being the first to tell consumers not to buy his company’s products unless they really needed them. This is a man who was never afraid to tell it like it is no matter who he annoyed in the process. From radical transparency to responsible marketing Chouinard has created a company for the ages.
Chouinard will be remembered by future generations as a man who showed us how it is done. He has also made sure that the company will outlive him. As explained in a Fortune article, Chouinard attracted current CEO Rose Marcario to come and work for the company as COO in 2008. Marcario became CEO in 2013. Like Chouinard, she is preoccupied with climate change and the loss of the natural world. Marcario is a Buddhist whose spirituality is reflected throughout the company she led (she retired in 2020). You would expect nothing less from an organization with a business model that literally seeks to save the world. While other business leaders suffer from myopia, Marcario inculcated an awareness of long-term impacts into Patagonia’s mission. Rather than slow sales, Marcario’s approach has grown profits at an astounding rate.
Other honorable mentions
In a world where immigrants seem increasingly under attack, some CEOs are pushing back and putting their social conscience into practice. Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya is a sustainability-focused Greek yogurt king. He has recruited immigrants and refugees to work with him and he compensates them well recently giving 10 percent of his company’s stock to his employees in an ESOP. He has also worked with other companies to file a legal brief opposing Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
No discussion of sustainability would be complete without mentioning the women who have done pioneering work in defense of people and the planet. This includes brave souls like Berta Cáceres who paid for their social and environmental advocacy with their lives. In the far north, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has emerged as the world’s leading voice on Arctic climate impacts and human rights. In South America, Marina Silva is a prominent advocate for the protection of the Amazon. In Africa, Wangari Matthai founded the Green Belt Movement which has led to more than 13 million trees being planted in Africa.
Women like Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and Hunter Lovins are well-known thought leaders who have helped define better approaches to development and business. Brundtland is widely regarded as the mother of sustainable development and Lovins has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement for more than three decades. As the President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions Lovins have been a powerful advocate for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
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