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Sustainability pioneers: who are the trailblazers?

 
Sustainability Leadership

Corporate sustainability needs pioneers and risk-takers, thinkers and doers who explore new territory and inspire others to follow. Photograph: Shackleton Foundation/PA

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Sustainability pioneers: who are the trailblazers?” was written by Marc Gunther, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 18th September 2013 11.48 UTC

What is corporate sustainability, exactly? Some companies view it as a business function like marketing, HR, IT or purchasing. Truly, though, it’s a movement, led by people inside and outside business – chief executives, chief sustainability officers, regulators, activists, academics and authors. Like other movements, corporate sustainability needs pioneers and risk-takers, thinkers and doers who explore new territory and inspire others to follow.

This week, a search firm called the Weinreb Group identified six sustainability pioneers. Three are described as thought leaders: entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and Peter Senge of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Society of Organizational Learning. Three are chief executives: Paul Polman of Unilever, Lee Scott, formerly of Walmart, and the late Ray Anderson of Interface.

It’s certainly a credible list. The Weinreb Group, which recruits sustainability professionals, polled more than 100 of them to come up with the names. In a report out today called Pioneers of Sustainability: Lessons from the Trailblazers, 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.”

Reading their list, I decided to make my own. My reporting on sustainability has focused on the US, so I’m going to list four pioneers, all American:

Paul Hawken

No question that he’s atop my list. Hawken is a triple threat: an author, an advisor to CEOs and governments and an entrepreneur. His landmark books, including The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, with Amory and Hunter Lovins, created the framework for thinking about corporate sustainability.

He’s has whispered in the ears of powerful business executives including Walmart’s Lee Scott and Ford’s Bill Ford. (Hawken wrote Lee Scott’s 2005 speech, announcing the company’s bold sustainability goals.) As an entrepreneur, he long ago co-founded the gardening and lifestyle retailer Smith & Hawken and more recently launched OneSun, a solar-power startup.

Most importantly, Hawken was one of the very first people to understand that business was not just the cause of the world’s environmental problems but a potential ally – indeed, an essential ally – in developing solutions. In 1992, long before the idea of “corporate sustainability” had gained currency, Hawken said in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco: “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. One example: Interface’s Ray Anderson said that reading The Ecology of Commerce inspired him to remake his carpet manufacturing company into a sustainability leader. The two men formed a lifelong bond so strong that Hawken delivered a touching eulogy for Anderson at his funeral in 2011.

Lee Scott

Lee Scott

Photograph: APRIL L. BROWN/AP

No company in the world has done more than Walmart to advance the cause of corporate sustainability. Lee Scott’s vision and persistence led Walmart to act on a bold environmental plan, so his influence is being felt today not just in Bentonville and across the US, but in remote corners of the global economy.

To be sure, Walmart remains a deeply flawed company. Its business model of selling vast amounts of cheap stuff is untenable. Its sustainability work focuses, for the most part, on efficiency. Its antipathy towards unions has fuelled a powerful and harmful backlash.

 

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