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Who Will Be the Rock Stars of Corporate Sustainability?


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This article was written in January, 2010, based on my presentation at the conference, Science, Wisdom, and the Future: Humanity's Quest for a Flourishing Earth in 2009. Published as a book of the same name in 2012 by Collins Foundation Press as a compilation of essays by scientists, philosophers, economists, educators, activists, artists and business people.

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Who Will Be the Rock Stars of Corporate Sustainability?

  1. 1. Who Will Be the Rock Stars of Corporate Sustainability? Victoria L. ZelinIt is legitimate—it is now accepted that there is a solid business case for cor-porations to “go green.” Among the watchwords are reduce, re-use, recycle,replace, and innovate in products, processes, and packaging. These practicesare critical for businesses to embrace, but they are just a minimum bet—tablestakes—in the bigger picture. Barely tapped is the realm which someday will become legendary. Every-one knows Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. They led the mete-oric growth of computing. Both were visionaries and emissaries on behalf oftechnology and digital innovation. The paradigm shifts that Jobs and Gatesmade popular lifted the fortunes of thousands of companies. In championing acause bigger than their own narrow self-interests, their firms attracted a land-slide of sales, and their brands have been emblazoned on the digital landscape.There were other rock stars of the early digital era that showed the way to newbusiness models, technologies, and ways of engaging customers and employ-ees: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Ebay’s Meg Whitman, Cisco’s John Chambers, andGoogle’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page. So, who will go down in history as leading the corporate sustainability revo-lution? What will they have in common? They will be leaders who pay attentionto the vast majority of scientists who foresee catastrophe in “business as usual.” For readers who have not been following the level of acceptance of sustainability practicesby corporations, here are a few references: A study by management consulting firm ATKearneyfound that companies committed to sustainability outperformed industry averages by 15% duringsome of the worst months of the 2008 financial free fall. (ATKearney. 2009. Sustainability andthe financial crisis. Internet 22 Jan 2010); Harvard Business Review, one of the premier journals for what’s hot in busi-ness, published this article by one of the foremost corporate strategists, C.K. Prahalad: Nidumolu, R.,Prahalad, C.K., and Rangaswami, M.R. 2009. Why sustainability is now the key driver of innovation.Harvard Business Review, Sept.; Bob Willard, ex-IBM internal consultant and prolific speaker andauthor on the subject of corporate sustainability, guides business people at any level in an organiza-tion in generating support for sustainability, leading change, making a business case, implementingand tracking metrics to yield a compelling ROI/return-on-investment (Willard, Bob. 2009. TheSustainability Champion’s Guidebook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers).Science, Wisdom, the Future. 2012. Genet, Cheryl et al., eds. Collins Foundation Press.
  2. 2. 258 Chapter 24 Victoria ZelinThey will have profoundly reckoned with the impact of externalizing their costsand plundering the Earth. They will find something that moves them to action,and they will authentically share their stories. They will touch the hearts andgalvanize the efforts of employees, suppliers, and their wider network of stake-holders. They will lead their own and other companies to replace the damagingproducts and practices of the old industrial revolution with technologies andprocesses that do less harm and even restore the eco-system. They will be re-warded through accolades, free press, loyal customers, and ferociously commit-ted employees. Their firms will rise head-and-shoulders above the competitionbecause they will have the best practices, the best profits, and the best brands. Environmentalists aside, the typical person on the street—not to mentionthe executives of global companies—probably cannot name Chief ExecutiveOfficers (CEOs) or companies that fit this description. While there are a fewcontenders, it is still too early to say who the icons of the corporate sustain-ability movement will be. What an opportunity! Given scary global warmingpredictions...given that society loves heroes…and given that nature abhors avacuum, this is the ideal moment for business leaders to position themselves,their firms, and their brands to lead the corporate sustainability charge. CEOswho merely pursue the business case but who do not “get it”—viscerally andvocally—are leaving a lot on the table. Why is it important that leaders make a personal, long-term, publiccommitment to making their organizations more sustainable? Why isn’t itenough to “go green” based on a profitable business case? Because customers,employees, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) do not trustmanagement. They are cynical. They have seen it before. Companies gear upfor “the flavor of the month” fad to make the business more profitable, and theinitiative dies for any number of reasons. Why should people expect anythingdifferent this time? Yet the movement toward sustainability is different. Thistime, it is personal. People see that their great-grandchildren’s future dependson what we as a society do today. Leaders need to commit for the long-haul,because it is the right thing to do. And when the green pilot program doesnot deliver as expected, rather than throwing the green business case on thedung heap of possibility, build on what you learned, retool, and forge on. Nostrategy or business case can drive behavior as powerfully as a higher purpose.People buy in at a whole new level when the CEO’s heart and soul (and career)are also on the line. While it is critical that each company cuts greenhouse gas emissions, ourcurrent situation cannot be solved one business at a time. As Einstein famouslysaid,“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that createdit.” It is going to take corporate rock stars to come up with messages compellingenough to change the way business operates. Below are a few examples of leaders
  3. 3. Who Will Be the Corporate Rock Stars of Sustainability? 259who have gotten out from behind their own company dashboards, made a differ-ence in the larger business community, and have been reaping the benefits: • Ray Anderson is founder and chairman of Interface, Inc. Anderson began his sustainability journey in 1994 when he read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (Hawken 1993). He had an epiphany, a “spear to the chest,” as he called it. He realized the damage that his commercial carpet company had caused with its oil-intensive products, toxic and wasteful processes, and land- fill disposal practices. Since then, Interface has avoided $419 million in costs, increased sales by two-thirds, and doubled profits to become a billion dollar market-leader. In the process they reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 82%, fossil fuels by 60%, waste by 66%, and water usage by 75% (Anderson 2009). Anderson speaks passionately at industry conferences about his fears for his great-grandchild’s—and humanity’s—future. He often reads “Tomorrow’s Child,” a poem by Interface employee Glenn Thomas who was transformed by Anderson’s early revelations. Read Anderson’s Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose—Doing Business by Respecting the Earth (Anderson 2009), and Mid-Course Correction. Toward a Sustain- able Enterprise: The Interface Model (Anderson 1998). • Yvon Chouinard is Founder of Patagonia, a $330 million maker of outdoor apparel. Since its inception in 1972, he has run his busi- ness according to the highest standards of sustainability. Among his accomplishments: he switched from conventionally grown cotton, which requires a very dirty pesticide-based process, to organic cotton, brought along other major brands, and continues to improve the recy- clability of clothing. “Patagonia’s conscience has rubbed off on others, from smaller enterprises like Clif Bar to larger ones like Levi Strauss and the Gap. Even Wal-Mart” (Casey, 2007). Chouinard also co- founded One Percent for the Planet. Now 1300 businesses promise to donate 1 percent of gross revenues to environmental causes; he calls it an “Earth tax.” At 70, Chouinard is a literal poster-child for sustain- ability, mountain-climbing, and surfing while he speaks and teaches what business must do for the environment. • Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart, and Matt Kistler, then SVP of Corporate Sustainability, rolled out an initiative in 2009 to create a Sustainability Index. Within a few years, customers will be able to compare products on the shelves based on their sustainability scores. Wal-Mart’s 100,000+ suppliers must provide sustainability data
  4. 4. 260 Chapter 24 Victoria Zelin for the Index, which, importantly, is not owned by Wal-Mart, but in partnership with universities and others as part of a universally available database. Talk about transparency! In one fell swoop, Wal- Mart sent ripples—actually, a tsunami!—through the world’s supply chain, raising the bar for all businesses. The press and NGOs were overwhelmingly positive, which seems to have made Wal-Mart’s social transgressions fade into the background. • Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, is a leader in the organic food industry, speaks, and authored Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hirshberg 2008). “With US $300m revenue, Stonyfield Farm is the world’s largest producer of organic yogurt and has experienced 27% annual growth for 18 years. Long committed to the environment, they completed their carbon footprint plan in 1999, ten years ago!!” (Baier 2009). • Jeffrey Hollender was, until 2009, Chief Inspired Protagonist and Founder of Seventh Generation, the $140 million leading green household cleaning products company that continued to grow through the recession. He consults with business, teaches, speaks, blogs, and wrote The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Gen- eration of Businesses Will Win (Hollender 2010) and What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers Is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business Is Listening (Hollender 2004). Hollender co-founded the American Sustainable Business Council ( to educate and mobilize businesses around sustain- able policies, and partnered with Kaplan EduNeering to launch the Sustainability Institute ( to provide busi- nesses with online sustainability training and best practices. Is getting into the sustainability limelight a risky thing to do? It is morerisky to continue with “business as usual.” Whether or not carbon legisla-tion ever happens, your competitors may already have reduced their wasteand inefficiencies, making their products cheaper. If competitors capturethe first-mover advantage, trying to overcome their lead can be futile, evenif you someday have a more sustainable product. Yes, getting out therewith your green products and services can attract a higher level of scrutiny,but there is no hiding; business has to get used to the new standards oftransparency. The best defense against claims of green-washing is a goodoffense. Ratings agencies want to know your sustainability practices tocalculate investors’ risks in associating with you. And if you do not partnerwith NGOs, your competitor will—and then, watch out: You may be the
  5. 5. Who Will Be the Corporate Rock Stars of Sustainability? 261target of that NGO’s next lawsuit! Your worst nightmare? Your arch rivalbecomes the Amazon in your space. Your employees, clients, suppliers, andinvestors defect. You are dead in the water. So how do key executives—or anyone looking to lead—step into thisopportunity and make a difference for themselves, their companies, theirindustries, and their fellow travelers on this planet? Here are some ideas forCEOs and executives: • If you do not already know, discover for yourself what the angst about the fragile environment is all about. Read books, articles, and the internet; watch videos on the web and movies; talk to environmen- talists and social activists; go to conferences on the environment; do your own research. If you are not shocked, saddened, afraid, or even panicked, you are not looking in the right places. • Keep delving until you “get” something that grips you on an emotional level. Something so compelling that it will keep you on track when the going gets tough. Something that you can never un-see and that will haunt you if you ever abandon your mission. • Authentically promise your long-term commitment. Ask for the best efforts, ideas, partnerships, and contributions of employees, suppliers and customers. • Connect your personal mission with your company’s strategy, and vice versa. • Get your company on a serious path to sustainability. A short-term business case, projects, and metrics are great for building muscle, confidence, and broad support. But sustainability is a long-term proposition. Match that horizon with projects that demonstrate your steadfast commitment and offer game-changing payoffs. • Be vocal and stand out in your community, region, or industry, in the press and blogs, with a much broader environmental and social agenda. Notice the flood of people who want to work for and invest in your company. • If you want to be a rock star, put strong operational leaders in place who are aligned with your vision so you can work beyond your own firm, at the level of business and industry. Understand that it is a vir- tuous cycle. Those that do will win, big-time.
  6. 6. 262 Chapter 24 Victoria Zelin What is obvious... isn’t! It is obvious that leaders need to reinventcorporate strategy in light of the issues and opportunities of sustain-ability. What is not obvious is that if businesses “go green” like they haveapproached change initiatives of the past, they will fail. And if businessdoes not turn this around, the end is nearer than we think. David Brower,former Executive Director for the Sierra Club, used to say, “There’s nobusiness to be done on a dead planet.” Leaders everywhere need to discoverand communicate their own passionate and personal long-term stand forsustainability. CEOs that “get it” and lead the business community in thiscampaign will become the icons—and their companies the blockbust-ers—of corporate sustainability.Author’s NoteVictoria Zelin has spent over 20 years helping individuals and organiza-tions transform themselves and their environments. Through businessdevelopment and consulting roles in firms in the US and Canada, she hasprovided solutions in the areas of human capital management and corpo-rate sustainability. Her many clients have included The Green Economy,Novartis, Pfizer, Chubb, Standard Poor’s, Cognos, Schindler Elevator,and McGraw-Hill. She has an MBA from the Yale School of Managementand a BA from Duke University. Victoria is the co-founder of the Sustain-able Leadership Forum (; she speaks and writes on the subjectof corporate sustainability and you can reach her at orcontact her at (908) 306-0272.ReferencesAdler, C, P. 2010. Cleaning Up: Being Green Wasn’t Always Easy. How Seventh Gen- eration Transformed the Way We Think About Cleaning Up. Newsweek Web Ex- clusive. Internet accessed 15 May 2010.Anderson, R. 1999. Mid-Course Correction. Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model. Atlanta, GA: Peregrinzilla Press.Anderson, R. 2009. Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose— Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Anderson, R. 2009. Synopsis: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose—Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. Barnes Noble. Internet dustrialist/Ray-C-Anderson/e/9780312543495 accessed 23 Jan 2010.Baier, P. 2009. Lessons from StonyField Farm are applicable to all. Practical Sus- tainability. Internet lessons-from-stonyfield-farm-are.html accessed 23 Jan 2010.
  7. 7. Who Will Be the Corporate Rock Stars of Sustainability? 263Casey, S. 2007. Patagonia: Blueprint for green business: the story of how Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard took his passion for the outdoors and turned it into an amazing business. Internet chive/2007/04/02/8403423/index2.htm accessed 6 Jan 2009.Hawken, P. 1994. The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: Harper Business.Hirshberg, G. 2008. Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World. New York: Hyperion.Hollender, J. and Breen, B. 2010 The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley Sons.Hollender, J., and Fenichell, S. 2004. What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers Is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Busi- ness Is Listening. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.