Activist CEOs: A new reality for corporate America

The days when business leaders could dodge social or political issues are coming to an end. CEO engagement on issues such as health care, sexual harassment, gun control and immigration have been steadily on the rise.

In a U.S. House committee meeting just last week, lawmakers “grilled [bank] executives more on social issues than business fundamentals,” according to Reuters, and probed them about fossil fuel investments. 

And as a recent Axios Trends piece suggests, pressure on CEOs to address social issues is increasing ahead of the 2020 political campaigns. In particular, demands that they act on climate change are heating up.

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The new rules of business leadership

The job of a CEO has always been challenging. Today it is tougher than ever, because the pressure to deliver rising valuations and ROI is matched by a new set of demands as investors, customers, employees and other business leaders call for profits to be balanced with social purpose.

After 20,000 of Google’s employees staged a walkout last November, the company overhauled its sexual harassment policies. Amazon was pulled into the spotlight late last year, when employees leveraged their stock options to submit petitions asking the company to create a plan to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. And when high school survivors of the Parkland massacre helped make gun control a subject of national debate, Kroger, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and LL Bean put new restrictions on their retail firearm sales.

As BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote recently in his annual letter to executives, “contentious town halls” where employees speak up for “the importance of corporate purpose” are becoming a fact of life. “This phenomenon will only grow as millennials and even younger generations occupy increasingly senior positions in business. In a recent survey by Deloitte, millennial workers were asked what the primary purpose of businesses should be – 63 percent more of them said ‘improving society’ than said ‘generating profit.’”

It’s no longer enough to post your values on the company intranet. You need to publicly and visibly put them to work.

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The 4 critical steps to climate leadership

Business leaders can no longer afford to look the other way on climate change. The recent National Climate Assessment revealed that regional economies and industries dependent on natural resources are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – as are energy systems. Warmer climates will increasingly disrupt international trade, prices, and supply chains, and costs could reach hundreds of billion dollars per year by the end of the century. Climate change doesn’t just threaten ecological balance, it threatens corporate balance sheets.

In light of these findings I’m encouraged by a recent survey of corporate leaders, 82 percent of whom said companies need to advocate for or take a stand on environmental, social and governance issues and that “climate and environment” was one of the three highest priorities for their organizations.

Knowing that a company should take action, however, is a long way from actually taking action on climate. While there are a growing number of cases where leading companies and major investors are ahead of the federal government on climate action, it’s simply not enough, and many more U.S. businesses need to step up.

The role that CEOs and companies play in global governance is changing. Leaders and laggards, winners and losers, will all be defined by how they respond to climate change. The leaders will surface based on their ability to take these four critical steps. Read more

IPCC report reveals urgent need for CEOs to act on climate

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sobering report this week detailing the dramatic effects of climate change and the immediate steps we need to take to make significant progress on limiting warming in the future. The report makes it clear that apathy and inaction are no longer viable options. Unprecedented action is needed by both the public and private sector to transform our energy, transportation and other systems around the world.

Could this report finally be the clarion call to our nation’s business leaders to take responsibility for ensuring a prosperous and clean energy future for all?

There has been encouraging progress to date, but much more needs to be done. Businesses have an essential role to play in building political will for action, which may be the biggest challenge of all. Moreover, new research shows corporate stakeholders want – and expect – climate leadership, including policy advocacy. Read more

Scaling for good: can McDonald’s raise the bar for sustainable food?

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting ambitious, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards; and, accelerating environmental innovation.

This is the 10th in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.

Let’s turn back the clock to 1990. It was a milestone year for McDonald’s, as the company opened its first restaurants in Moscow, mainland China and Chile. It was also when the largest restaurant company in the world joined forces with Environmental Defense Fund to launch a groundbreaking partnership that would find ways to reduce McDonald’s solid waste. The results? $6 million in savings, more than 300 million pounds of packaging eliminated, and 1 million tons of corrugated boxes recycled.

2018 is shaping up to be a big year for McDonald’s too, with a packaging waste goal set in January and an announcement to reduce emissions across its supply chain in March. Led by Executive Vice President and Chief Supply Chain and Sustainability Officer Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s has raised the corporate leadership bar with these ambitious sustainability targets. But now, the difficult and complex work of meeting these goals begins.

I caught up with Francesca ahead of the Global Climate Action Summit this week to ask her about what the roadmap to meeting these goals looks like, and how they’ll collaborate with their suppliers and the industry to prioritize action on the areas where McDonald’s has the biggest opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including responsible beef production

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

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The future is sweet – and sustainable – for Allbirds

If you take a quick look around your office, it probably won’t be hard to spot a pair of shoes made by Allbirds, the San Francisco-based footwear company that makes its products using materials like wool and eucalyptus fiber.

The two year-old company aims to make comfortable, sustainably-made shoes – and they seem to be everywhere. Just last week the company launched a new line of shoes, actually flip-flops, with soles made from sugar-cane instead of petroleum. Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown calls the new material, SweetFoam™, “our biggest sustainable-material innovation moment yet.”

I spoke with Tim to learn more about his approach to design and innovation and to look behind the sustainability curtain at Allbirds. Read more

Why this leading energy company sees opportunity in a low carbon future

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards; and, accelerating environmental innovation.

This is the eighth in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.

Equinor, formerly known as Statoil, is not your average energy company. The Norwegian-based corporation reports producing oil and gas with half of the CO2 emissions, compared to the global industry average.

The company also stated commitment to building its business in support of the Paris Agreement, and plans to invest over $200 million in Equinor Energy Ventures, one of the world’s largest corporate venture funds dedicated to investing in growth companies in renewable energy. That may be why CDP ranked Equinor as the oil and gas company best prepared for a low carbon future.

Equinor is also doing its part to detect and reduce methane emissions by embracing innovation and technology. In fact, Equinor was the first energy producer to purchase and install a new solar-powered technology device to continuously detect methane leaks. And, Equinor collaborates with EDF and Stanford in supporting mobile monitoring advances, such as drone based sensors.

In advance of the World Gas Conference in DC later this month, I spoke with Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, senior vice president of sustainability at Equinor, to learn more about the company’s climate goals and how the company is addressing methane emissions from its oil and gas operations. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. Read more

How an Indonesian coconut plantation inspired Mars’ “aha moment” on sustainability

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards; and, accelerating environmental innovation.

This is the seventh in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.

You likely know Mars as the company behind leading brands like M&M’s®, PEDIGREE® pet food, and UNCLE BEN’S® rice. For those of us in the field of corporate social responsibility, Mars is also well-known for its environmental leadership.

Mars’ Sustainable in a Generation plan lays out the company’s commitment to procure 100 percent renewable energy, reduce 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from its direct operations by 2040, and reduce indirect emissions throughout the value chain by one-third by 2030 – and two-thirds by 2050.

As Mars’ chairman Stephen Badger wrote in a Washington Post editorial last year, the company’s carbon footprint is the size of a small country. The company’s goals are therefore nothing short of ambitious.

But if anyone can help the company meet those targets, it is chief procurement and sustainability officer Barry Parkin, who believes that big goals drive big innovation.

I recently spoke with Barry about how Mars plans to tackle its climate goals, how being a family-owned business shapes its approach to sustainability, and how his time on the British Olympic sailing team influences his day-to-day job. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Environmental innovation is thriving in corporate America, despite the leadership vacuum in DC

Last week hundreds of representatives from global companies and leading NGOs met in Bentonville, AR for Walmart’s annual Sustainability Milestone Summit. The theme of the meeting was Project Gigaton, the most ambitious and collaborative effort ever to reduce a billion tons of emissions from the global supply chain over the next 15 years. At the meeting Walmart announced 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from suppliers, and noted that 400 suppliers with operations in more than 30 countries have now joined Project Gigaton by setting ambitious climate targets.  

One powerful theme that emerged from the meeting was the importance of technology. Project Gigaton is inspiring targets that raise our ambition, but increasingly technology is how we will deliver on these commitments and measure progress.

A new EDF survey of more than 500 executives confirms that game changing technology innovations are empowering private sector leaders to improve business and environmental performance – and to accelerate sustainability efforts across global supply chains.

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Amazon’s big opportunity: Transparency in sustainability

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards; and, accelerating environmental innovation.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.

Over the past few years, Amazon’s sustainability team has been busy setting ambitious goals on renewable energy, making their voice heard on smart environmental policies, and leveraging their expertise in technology to drive innovation that can benefit the planet – and boost profits.

I recently chatted with Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon and former CEO of The Sustainability Consortium, about how innovation and environmental goals intersect at Amazon, the launch of the new Amazon Sustainability Question Bank, and how sustainability issues could play a role in deciding the next Amazon headquarters (HQ2).

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