How to follow the paths of sustainability trailblazers

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How to follow the paths of sustainability trailblazers

Trail sign image by vesilvio via Shutterstock

Sustainability pioneers do not rest on their laurels. They consistently and passionately work toward long-term improvement, and they are powerful examples of persistent boldness and conviction, particularly when the going gets tough.

That's just one of the findings from a Weinreb Group report, "Pioneers of Sustainability: Lessons from the Trailblazers," released Wednesday. Co-author James Epstein-Reeves and I interviewed six sustainability pioneers about their insights, early stories and advice. These six pioneers came to us through a two-step process. First, 52 pioneers were nominated by chief sustainability officers (CSOs) recognized in CSO Back Story, and then 79 sustainability professionals voted to identify our final six. 

We did not put any constraints or caveats to the call for pioneers from CSOs because we wanted to see what would evolve. Two categories of pioneers emerged: thought leaders and CEOs. CSOs did not gravitate towards other CSOs as pioneers but rather their (and others') CEOs.

The CSOs are all U.S.-based, and their pioneers were mostly U.S.-based as well. Sadly, few women were nominated and none was voted as a leading pioneer.

The six pioneers featured in the report are:

• Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur and author

• Michael Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School

• Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

• Ray Anderson, founder and former CEO and chairman of Interface

• Paul Polman, CEO of The Unilever Group

• Lee Scott, retired president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores

Going against the odds

Both the CEOs and thought leaders faced uphill battles in getting people to understand the importance of sustainability and change, but their tenacity and conviction about the issues helped them continue against the odds.

The CEOs, for example, described how they dealt with colleagues and employees who strongly disagreed with company sustainability policies.

Anderson spoke fervently about his beliefs, getting others to understand the importance of sustainable business practices. In a moving eulogy for Anderson in 2011, Hawken said, "He stood up again and again in front of big audiences and told them that pretty much everything they knew, learned and were doing was destroying the earth. He meant every word he spoke and those words landed deeply in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of thousands of people he addressed. … His dream, his yearning for commerce that regenerates life and does no harm, his intention to re-conceive what it means to be a manufacturer, to bring industry and biology together into one entity, burned in him, a flame that never seared or ceased, and it will live on in his company and thousands more."

Jim Hartzfeld, former vice president of sustainable business strategy at Interface, said that Anderson saw "a bigger system than most people around him were looking at, at the time and understand a deeper truth in its midst. … He had an audacity and courage to do things based on that truth that made sense to him regardless of the conventional thinking of the time. … He understood and then committed to sustainability in a similar way."

Moving past the disbelievers

Wal-Mart is another company with an explicit sustainability mission. In 2005, the company announced three goals: to be supplied with 100 percent renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain people and the environment.

Determining these goals wasn't an easy task for Scott, however. He faced disapproval from inside and outside the company.

"Well, the great thing about a business is, it's not a democracy," Scott said. "So people can have a say but they don't necessarily get a vote. The board gets a vote."

Indeed, many people approached Scott, telling him he was entirely wrong for spending time on environmental issues, but he was steadfast.

Hawken also spoke about his experiences in dealing with people who strongly disagreed with his views. He described giving a speech at a Commonwealth Club event as he was writing "The Ecology of Commerce," a book that later would become incredibly influential. He recalls that some in the crowd reacted angrily, and some even left the room.

“Move forward despite uncertainty”

Unilever's Polman -- the figurehead behind the company's famed Sustainable Living Plan launched in 2010 -- is one of the most visible champions of sustainable business today.

The Sustainable Living Plan is remarkable for its ambition. The company aims to double its business while enacting its three-point sustainability plan: to help more than a billion people improve their health and well-being, to halve the environmental footprint of its products and to sustainably source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials.

"The secret is to begin, to move forward despite the uncertainty and to become comfortable with much greater transparency and collaboration, so that we can bravely lead for a new order of things," Polman said. "There will be good rewards for those leaders who can scale this approach to create a truly sustainable business."

Continuing today

In addition to their remarkable past influence on the field, many of the pioneers have continued working to effect change today.

What did the pioneers identify as some of today's important issues?

Polman and Senge said that scale is a critical issue today. "There is still a lack of appreciation amongst many CEOs of the full nature and scale of the transformation that is needed," Polman said.

Senge has spent much of his efforts recently on food systems, particularly critical fisheries. With Senge's participation, Oxfam, Unilever and some of the biggest food companies and NGOs around the world have started to work together through the Sustainability Food Laboratory, part of a growing trend toward restoring the biological and social foundations of critical food systems.

Hawken cited energy and carbon emissions as an important sustainability focus. "I am facing the same problem as the world, which is how to solve the need for energy and the necessity to cap carbon emissions and then draw down carbon from the atmosphere," he said.

Scott spoke of the politics of many issues. "What really keeps me up at night in this world today is that we have to be so polarized on all of this. … How do we embolden people to do the right things and not have to be so harsh on each other?" he said.

In speaking about sustainability today, Porter said, "I'm particularly daunted by the challenges of creating a decent income for people that don't have significant skill and education in this global economy. But I'm also heartened by the solutions that are being invented and implemented on a large scale by business that is starting to work positively in some of these areas."

Creating connections

Regardless of the area one works in, the pioneers identified collaboration as crucial to future successes. "Collaboration is key," Polman said, "The issues are simply too big to go it alone." Similarly, Senge said, "[In the future,] it's all going to be about collaboration at new scales. It's going to be about people working together across all kinds of boundaries that we still don't cross -- whether those are the boundaries in a supply chain or the boundaries between sectors or countries."

We all can go far beyond the laurels of our past accomplishments, both individually and collectively. Much remains to be done, but we have inspiringly optimistic trailblazers who continue to teach and lead us boldly on.

Trail sign image by vesilvio via Shutterstock