Skip to main content

20 C-suite sustainability champions for 2021

These corporate leaders are stepping up on multiple fronts in extraordinary times.

20 C-suite sustainability champions for 2021

The big stories of 2020 were not just about a pandemic, a reckoning on racial justice, an economic calamity and the ever-imminent rise of climate change impacts. If a crisis is the ultimate test of leadership, last year provided ample narratives about leaders stepping up.

These 20 C-suite executives have steered their companies forward through much disruption, providing inspiration for the possibilities of advancing sustainability, social responsibility and circular business models — sometimes all at once. Often working from home themselves, they empathized with employees and other stakeholders, some refusing to issue layoffs. They sparked uncomfortable conversations about diversity and discrimination, some pledging many millions of dollars to address lingering inequities internally and in society at large. Many celebrated with their CSOs on meeting ambitious corporate targets for 2020, while setting audacious new goals for 2025, 2030 and 2050.

Each of these individuals is playing the long game and is in a strong position to move their companies and industries into what could be a more hopeful period of reconciliation, recovery and repair.

Many "firsts" are on the list, especially in terms of the number of women cracking the glass ceiling in their roles. Many leaders in this cohort happen to have climbed the ranks at one company for decades. Most support science-based targets and sit on multiple boards, collaborations and advocacy groups to further industry-level sustainability goals.

Marry Barra, General Motors

Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors; Detroit

LinkedIn | Company profile

Raised in Detroit, as a teen Mary Barra worked as a co-op student at Pontiac Motor, where her father was a die maker. In 2014, the electrical engineer and MBA became the first woman to lead a U.S. automaker.

As electric vehicles drive toward the mainstream, General Motors has come full circle as well. It mass-produced the first electric car in the 1990s, then literally crushed most of them in 2003. Now, in its eventual internal-combustion phaseout, GM can’t seem to make EVs fast enough, and 30 new models are lined up for the market for 2025. In November, the company said it will spend $7 billion more than initially planned on electric and self-driving vehicles through 2025, a total of $27 billion.

Barra's vision for General Motors includes bringing emissions, crashes and congestion down to zero while becoming the "most inclusive company in the world." The automaker’s sustainability goals include sourcing energy only from renewable sources and getting at least half the materials in its vehicles from recycled, bio-based or renewable origins — by 2030 in the U.S. and globally by 2040.

The company touts advancing responsibility for sourcing raw ingredients, such as cobalt, within its supply chain. Nearby in Flint, where at least 100,000 residents suffered exposure to lead-poisoned tap water, GM turned millions of water bottles into filler for coats for homeless people.

To prevent additional layoffs as the pandemic dented sales, Barra took a temporary pay cut, and GM pivoted with partners to build ventilators and masks. Less advertised around that time, the company unveiled details about its new modular vehicle platform and Ultium batteries, designed to lower EV prices and allow a 400-mile range fully charged.

Christophe Beck, Ecolab

Christophe Beck, CEO, Ecolab; St. Paul, Minnesota

LinkedIn | Company profile

Christophe Beck is brand-new as Ecolab CEO this month, taking over from retiring Doug Baker, an established advocate of the "virtuous cycles" of sustainability and profitability. In Beck’s mind, too, forwarding-thinking companies should look at natural resources not just as consumables but as recyclable goods, and then design systems and products in a way that eliminates waste.

Nearly a century ago, Ecolab sold dishwasher soap with a dispenser described as its first effort to reduce waste. The next frontier is "connected chemistry," extending the internet of things to "the internet of natural resources," Beck said in 2019.

The leader in water, hygiene and energy services sells to a diverse collection of institutions such as hospitals, food and beverage providers, as well as heavy industry including power plants and plastic manufacturers. Ecolab says it helped its customers save enough water in 2018 equivalent to the needs of 600 million people. The company, an early partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has positioned water and carbon emissions as equally critical in the climate crisis. Last year, Ecolab set a goal for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, getting halfway there by 2030.

Beck, trained in mechanical engineering and aerodynamics, worked at one time for the European Space Agency. Spending the past year as Ecolab’s president and COO, he joined as an executive vice president in 2008 after capping off 15 years as Nestlé’s head of corporate sales in Europe.

Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks

Rosalind 'Roz' Brewer, COO and Group President, Starbucks

Company profile

Rosalind Brewer is the first African-American and woman to steer the company’s Americas operations as well its global supply chain, product and store development. Yet about six months in as president and COO at Starbucks, she was terrified in 2018 to hear that two Black men had been arrested needlessly at one of its Philadelphia stores.

"This could happen to my son any day of the week," she said. "I felt like it happened under my watch."

Starbucks ramped up its anti-bias training, closing 8,000 stores one day to do so — a prelude in 2018 to its response to the interconnected crises of 2020. In October, Starbucks announced it would ramp up hiring of people of color to at least 30 percent of the corporate workforce and 40 percent of retail and manufacturing by 2025. It’s also investing in professional mentorship for minorities and backing communities through $6.5 million in Neighborhood Grants.

A chemist with a knack for analytics, Brewer has spoken of bringing her head and her heart to leadership. She was known for promoting diversity and inclusion while CEO and president of Walmart Sam’s Club.

At Starbucks, that expanded focus also blends with its climate leadership initiatives. In 2019, it issued a $1 billion sustainability bond, the first corporation to do so. After learning of the outsize impact of dairy in its supply chain, it added more plant-based items to its menu.

"I can’t even explain to you how much richer the conversations are when you have a diverse group of people in the room challenged against one problem, and how quickly you get to solutions," she said in 2018.

No doubt those conversations will be at play in Starbucks’ 50th year. As it expands by 800 stores annually, it also will strive toward a science-based, "resource positive" framework of halving carbon emissions, landfill waste and waste usage by 2030.

Patrick Collison, Stripe

Patrick Collison, CEO and co-founder, Stripe; San Francisco

LinkedIn | Personal website

It’s a prototypical Silicon Valley tale: Irish-bred Patrick Collison sold his first tech company for millions as a teen with brother John. Their next big project, payment service provider Stripe, has ballooned in its 10th year to a $36 billion valuation, just behind Elon Musk's SpaceX among a few privately held unicorns.

CEO Collison (John is president) has his eye on making an outsized climate impact by accelerating negative-carbon solutions. In May, Stripe named four young CO2-sequestration efforts it’s bankrolling with a combined $1 million, including Project Vestas (green-rock beaches) and CarbonCure (concrete). Natural carbon sinks, carbon mineralization and direct-air capture are early focus areas for Stripe’s 2019 Negative Emissions Commitment, which aims to spend at least double in these areas compared with what it pays for carbon offsets.

Stripe Climate, launched in October, is an attempt to address a chicken-egg problem by driving up adoption for CO2-removal services that are, for now, prohibitively expensive for other companies. Online merchants can divert a portion of each sale toward carbon sequestration, and show that off to downstream shoppers at the point of purchase. Unlike with offsets, there’s no tit-for-tat estimate of how many GHG tons may be involved, which is intentional.

The billionaire bibliophile has a side publishing effort, Stripe Press, which tries to further "ideas that we think can be broadly useful" toward shaping "the world of tomorrow."

João Paulo Ferreira, Natura

João Paulo Ferreira, CEO, Natura &Co Latin America; São Paulo

LinkedIn | Company profile

From its cosmetics direct-sales origins in 1969, Natura &Co has matured to swallow up Avon, the Body Shop and Aesop. The Brazilian company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange one year ago, sells beauty and biodiversity as intertwined. Its mission: to offer products that "promote the harmonious relationship of the individual with oneself, with others and with nature."

Working under group CEO Roberto Marquez, João Paulo Ferreira’s Latin America CEO position has overseen the heart of the original business since 2016. The electronic engineer and MBA spent 19 years as a supply chain vice president at Unilever before joining Natura in 2009.

In 2019, Ferreira urged Brazilian leaders to protect the fire-scarred Amazon rainforest, from which so much megadiversity — and Natura’s product base — derives. Ucuuba berries used in a moisturizer, for example, are more lucrative for local residents to collect and sell to Natura than chopping down the trees for timber.

"But you have to do this in an orderly way that conserves the local culture, including traditional know-how, and adds value to the communities involved," Ferreira has said.

In the past decade, Natura has planted several hundred million dollars toward rainforest protection and sustainable development. Full traceability for palm oil, mica, paper, alcohol, soy and cotton is due in 2025. The company’s "Commitment to Life" vision for 2030 includes net-zero GHG emissions by 2030, and raising by 7.4 million acres the 4.4 million acres it protects in the Amazon.

Natura, which issues a regular environmental profit-and-loss statement, went carbon-neutral in 2007 and became the first public B Corporation in 2014.

Furthering fair wages and closing the gender gap is another goal, as is embracing circular principles. It’s throwing $100 million toward biotech solutions for repurposing waste and improving plastics; regenerative agriculture in deforested zones; and building up markets for biological ingredients.

Beth Ford, Land O' Lakes

Beth Ford; President & CEO; Land O’Lakes; Arden Hills, Minnesota

LinkedIn | Company profile

Best known for its butter — and the Native American logo it retired last year — Land O’Lakes is also a 21st-century force in technology. Beth Ford is cultivating agtech at scale to optimize yields sustainably across the 150 million acres it touches in every state. Farmers are "the original environmentalists," she said in July. "The way we think about sustainability is data-enhanced decisions."

Land O’Lakes is a cooperative owned by some 300,000 farmers, who were already struggling before COVID-19 upended supply chains. Toward its bid to accelerate regenerative agriculture and aid farmers, one acre and data point at a time, the company recently partnered with Microsoft on a multi-year effort to hasten innovation and boost rural broadband. Microsoft’s cloud architecture eventually will house Land O’Lakes’ data tools including Truterra, which tracks impacts on soil, air and water from no-till, cover crops and fertilizer management practices, as well as WinField United r7 software that uses satellite imagery and geolocated data.

Raised in Iowa, Ford became the only openly gay Fortune 500 CEO in 2018. She came to the co-op from International Flavors & Fragrances in 2012 as supply chain and operations executive vice president and became COO several years later. Ford’s resume spans industries, including time at Mobil Oil, PepsiCo and Scholastic. Ford is on the board of directors at the Business Roundtable, Consumer Goods Forum and U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

Logan Green, Lyft

Logan Green, Co-founder and CEO, Lyft; San Francisco


Logan Green has cited growing up with Southern California traffic and carpooling as a student in Zimbabwe for inspiring the launch of Zimride in 2007. He was fresh out of a business economics bachelor’s program in Santa Barbara and a stint as the youngest director on the local Metro Transit District board.

Zimride merged into Lyft in 2013, its vehicles announced by a fuzzy pink "grill-stache." By 2019, the company counted more than a billion total rides, with 2 million annual drivers in more than 650 U.S. and Canadian cities.

In June, Lyft set a course to move toward 100 percent electric or other emission-free vehicles by 2030. That’s in the vehicles that Lyft drivers own, as well as the company’s Express Drive rentals for drivers and its eventual Level 5 self-driving fleets.

The ride-sharing brand positions this as a radical shift that will benefit communities, partly by reducing pollution. Working with the Environmental Defense Fund, Lyft predicts it will prevent the release of tens of millions of metric tons of GHG emissions and avert the consumption of a billion tons of gasoline.

Lyft’s IPO filing in 2019 exposed contradictions between its goals to "redesign our cities around people, not cars," and the traffic congestion its rides have caused. Among other challenges, Lyft’s scooter rentals mostly have flopped, but the company isn’t giving up on micromobility. And its LyftUp effort seeks to meet transportation needs in underserved urban communities.

Ridesharing demand crashed with COVID-19, and Lyft became part of the frontline delivery and medical access infrastructure. With holes in the gig economy torn open, Lyft tried to keep some drivers working by partnering with Amazon, and paid some time off due to virus exposure. Although they laid off nearly 1,000 employees, Green and co-founder John Zimmer declined their own pay.

The company has played the self-described "woke" foil to market leader Uber. "We care" is what sets Lyft apart, Green has said. Lyft’s first ESG report reaffirmed as much in July, also showing that working conditions for its diverse driver base top the list of stakeholder concerns, alongside community safety and emissions.

Mauricio Gutierrez, NRG Energy

Mauricio Gutierrez, CEO, NRG; Houston

LinkedIn | Company profile

After the contentious exit of David Crane, who was leaning hard into the disruptive power of renewables, COO Gutierrez became CEO overnight in 2015. The company has since whipsawed between its wholesale-energy legacy of fossil fuels and greener horizons. To mollify shareholders, NRG shed its renewables business and EVGo vehicle-charging infrastructure.

However, like Crane before him, Gutierrez is wise to the macro trends that favor clean energy, and has called sustainability "the glue that keeps all of our stakeholders working together toward a common goal with purpose." In 2019, Gutierrez issued a new goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, expecting to reach it halfway by 2025.

NRG in December issued a $900 million sustainability-linked bond, which it called a first for a North American company.

Motivated to decarbonize, digitize and customize, Gutierrez has been advancing an integrated-power strategy to bring generation and retail together. Rather than invest capital directly in renewable-energy projects, he wants NRG to provide long-term contracts that improve their financeability.

Gutierrez joined NRG from Dynegy in 2004 as an energy portfolio director. The engineer holds master’s degrees in mineral economics and petroleum economics.

An outspoken advocate for racial justice, Gutierrez has urged companies to take action on social issues that matter to stakeholders, and to be honest that the playing field is not level. "We cannot create equity value if we do not take care of our employees or if we don’t serve our customers and their communities," he said in June.

Helena Helmersson, H&M

Helena Helmersson, COO, H&M Group; Stockholm

LinkedIn | Company profile

Helena Helmersson may be the first former CSO to ascend to the top job at a major corporation, signaling H&M’s designs to further stitch sustainability and equity into operations. She’s also the first woman, succeeding longtime CEO Karl-Johan Persson one year ago.

Joining H&M in 1997 in the buying department, Helmersson wound her way through the company, moving from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Hong Kong to Stockholm. A vocal advocate for purpose in retail, she oversees 126,000 employees and 5,000 storefronts in 74 countries, with a complex supply chain network.

The H&M model embodies some big contradictions. It helped define fast fashion, yet is in the vanguard of circular innovations in apparel. It strives to improve conditions for garment workers and improve transparency, yet still attracts activist ire.

H&M seeks by 2030 to become fully circular, eliminating waste and adopting sustainable and recycled materials, and has partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since 2018. Helmersson views engaging consumers as the key, and the company is working on the Higg Index with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to improve industry labeling.

H&M is among the first apparel giants to enable product take-back for any garment and to prioritize reducing toxic chemicals in manufacturing. In 2019, customers returned 29,000 tonnes of worn clothes in exchange for 15 percent discounts, beating company expectations.

Pure cotton and polyester can be downcycled into insulation and other things. H&M forged a five-year partnership in November with RenewCell to produce millions of pieces of clothing from Circulose, a pulp made from used cotton fabric. The H&M Foundation and CO:LAB venture capital arm share a focus on advancing textile recycling.

More broadly, the company is moving toward a "climate positive" value chain by 2040, embracing science-based targets. It is already at 96 percent renewable energy toward the 2030 goal of 100 percent.

Ilham Kadri, Solvay

Ilham Kadri, CEO, Solvay; Brussels

LinkedIn | Company profile

The first woman to lead a major European chemical company, Ilham Kadri has called chemistry "the mother of all industries." Directing operations in 64 countries from the EU capital, she seeks to catalyze circular models and take Solvay far past its 1863 roots as a soda ash producer.

"Without industry there is no reinvention and without reinvention there is no future," the chemical engineer and physics-chemistry Ph.D. said in December.

Kadri launched Solvay’s One Planet sustainability framework of "climate, resources and better life" last year, 11 months after becoming CEO. With some $12 billion annual sales, the company’s eclectic mix of products includes coatings, solvents and binders for electric car batteries; lightweight composites for airplanes; recycled polyamide for apparel and sustainable vanillin for chocolate.

Solvay seeks to double revenues from renewable or recycled solutions and count 65 percent of its products as sustainable by 2030 — also closing the loop on energy and resources in its plants; extending life cycles and optimizing consumption within its supply chains. It uses blockchain to trace sourcing in India for guar, used in shampoos.

The company is an Ellen MacArthur Foundation partner, including in a collaboration with Veolia to close the loop on lithium-ion EV batteries. Other circular approaches include making vanilla flavoring from discarded rice husks and reusing hydrogen peroxide for paper production. Solvay repurposes wastewater from dairy production in the United Arab Emirates to cool cows in arid fields.

Kadri, raised in Casablanca, was previously CEO of hygiene tech company Diversey and counts management experience at Sealed Air, Dow and Shell. She brings an international perspective and an embrace of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and has worked in the U.S., UAE, Switzerland and France.

Mark Mason, Citi

Mark Mason, CFO, Citi; New York City

LinkedIn | Company profile

In May, Mark Mason flung open a door that’s rarely unlatched on Wall Street by publishing a wrenching company blog post against systemic racism. Its first words, 10 times repeated, were the last spoken by police brutality victim George Floyd: "I can’t breathe."

Unusual for a finance chief, the message is one that Mason felt necessary for Citi’s 204,000 employees and the world at large. Yet "words are not enough." So Citi threw its heft behind a $1 billion, three-year Action for Racial Equity initiative supporting Black homeownership, entrepreneurship and professional development.

Mason, who was raised in Queens, is one of the few senior Black executives in banking, at Citi since 2001 in a slate of leadership roles including CEO of Citi Private Bank. He also leads Citi Ventures Initiatives, which invests in efforts to "help people, businesses, and communities thrive." Citi Impact Fund investments include waste-to-fuel company, smart water management and 3D printing companies. Startups in the area of "access to capital and economic opportunity," for which $50 million has been earmarked, are "coming soon" on the website.

Citi positions environmental sustainability and racial justice as intertwined, seeking to be the finance leader in low-carbon solutions, and Mason holds the purse strings. In 2019, it followed an inaugural €1 billion bond with a $1.5 billion U.S. bond. The bank recently added circular economy and sustainable agriculture focus areas for its $250 billion Environmental Finance Goal, which it expanded from the original $100 billion goal that it met four years early.

Lisa McKnight, Mattel

Lisa McKnight; Senior Vice President, Global Head of Barbie; Mattel; El Segundo, California

LinkedIn | Company profile

The cultural impact of the Barbie doll is hard to overestimate. Whether seen as innocent or insidious, she’s a prism through which generations of girls have shaped their self-image and aspirations. About six years ago, Lisa McKnight’s team found the blonde bombshell falling out of favor with parents. She set out to redirect and reposition Barbie as "the original empowerment brand," touching on the icon’s origins as the invention of a 1959 mompreneur.

As a result, today’s kaleidoscope of Barbies includes 176 dolls with 94 hairstyles, 35 skin tones and nine body types. She is a chicken farmer, a zoo doctor, a firefighter, a polar marine biologist, a park ranger and a political candidate. One in five is Black. Barbie is Rosa Parks, David Bowie and Susan B. Anthony. Barbie may have a wheelchair, no hair or vitiligo. On social media, she describes baking banana bread during quarantine and ponders why women overuse the word "sorry." Barbie annual sales are soaring beyond $1 billion.

What does this have to do with sustainability? When the world’s second-biggest toy maker plants the seeds for more inclusive play, the fruit may feed SDG No. 5 on gender equality. Empowering girls and women offers a multitude of carbon-reduction benefits.

McKnight, at Mattel for 22 years after leading marketing at Gap, is working within the 91-year-old company’s greater shift to environmental sustainability. Mattel seeks for all products and packaging to comprise recycled or recyclable materials by 2030, and in June it brought sugarcane-plastic toddler stacking rings to market. Most of Mattel’s paper-based packaging is Forest Stewardship Council-certified. The toymaker seeks to cut normalized carbon emissions in half by 2028.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis

Vasant Narasimhan, CEO, Novartis; Basel, Switzerland

LinkedIn | Company profile

"Vas" Narasimhan views this moment as the best to be alive, partly because science promises to advance health by unlocking genetic mysteries that have built up over 3.7 billion years of evolution. No wonder he keeps an ammonite fossil in his bag.

Addressing health equity is a special focus area for Narasimhan, who cut his teeth as a public health doctor addressing malaria and HIV in developing nations. With 103,000 employees and 800 million people using its products, Novartis is at the forefront of exploring genetic and cell therapies for human health. A subsidiary is involved in an early-stage, gene-based vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

"We all have to speak up in defense of really rigorous, well-defined science," Narasimhan said in December. "If we lose that battle, the world will give up a lot of the gains that we’ve had and perhaps many we could have in areas like environment and climate change."

With erudite Narasimhan in charge, Novartis is buckling down to embed ESG into operations. In September, the company issued healthcare’s first sustainability bond, priced at $2.26 billion. In November it became the first European pharmaceutical company to meet 100 percent renewables through virtual power purchase agreements. The Swiss firm aims to reach neutrality in carbon, water and plastic by 2030 across its supply chain, and phase out polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in medical packaging by 2025.

The charismatic "unboss," as he has called his role, has been at Novartis since 2007, with a stint at Sandoz. Raised in Pittsburgh and one of the youngest multinational leaders, Narasimhan is fond of sharing books that inspire him on Twitter. He serves on the National Academy of Medicine and on boards including African Parks.

Patti Poppe, PG&E (Credit: Michigan Economic Development Corporation)

Patti Poppe, CEO, PG&E; San Francisco

LinkedIn | Company profile

Patti Poppe has a grounded, straight-talking style, an inclination to see opportunities in crisis, and an embrace of innovation to enrich the triple bottom line. It’s easy to see why Pacific Gas & Electric snapped her up in November from Consumers Energy in Michigan, where she was on track to fold its coal and nuclear operations by 2040.

"There are ways to make this clean energy transition that are additive, that are extraordinary," she said in 2019. "We’ve got work to do; there’s no time to stand on the sidelines and hope and holler and think that somebody’s gonna do something about this."

As the California utility crawls out of a bankruptcy and restructuring, the human and environmental toll left by the epic wildfires it caused remain incalculable. Can PG&E earn back the trust of its 16 million consumers? A clue may be found in Poppe’s approach to a crisis. Rather than asking if something is possible, she advocates for asking, "What has to be true to bring it to fruition?"

Consumers Energy CEO since 2016, she was praised for preventing a bigger emergency two subzero Januarys ago, after a fire at a natural gas compressor threatened energy transmission. The company texted residents to turn down their thermostats, they responded, and nobody lost heat.

As for the slower-moving climate crisis, Poppe grabbed the opportunity of a generation to replace fossil fuels and phase in "modular" renewables. The industrial engineer even made energy efficiency enticing at Consumers, in May teaming up with Google to give away Nest smart thermostats to 100,000 customers.

Poppe said she won’t abandon her coworkers or their communities during the energy transition, describing how career employees at a shuttered coal plant stayed at the company. Before working in energy, the Michigander spent 15 years in plant management at General Motors. She’s the first woman to move from one Fortune 500 CEO office to another.

Linda Rendle, Clorox

Linda Rendle, CEO, Clorox; Oakland, California

LinkedIn | Company profile

One million Clorox wipes, prized during the pandemic, were rolling off the company’s assembly lines each day in 2020. The company cleaned up in sales, and it’s going on an advertising offense.

It’s up to new CEO Linda Rendle how aggressively Clorox will lead its 8,800 employees on sustainability. Joining the America Is All In pledge supporting the Paris Agreement in December is an early indicator. One of Rendle’s tasks for 2021 will be to complete a 100 percent renewable electricity goal for Clorox’s U.S. and Canadian operations.

Rendle is the first woman in the job as of September, and the 38th female CEO on the Fortune 500. Promoted from president, she has risen steadily over 18 years through a series of vice president titles in supply chain and operations. Rendle has shunned social media. Visa cited her strategy- and brand-building experience when it welcomed her to its board in November.

In August, the 98-year-old company joined the U.S. Plastics Pact, and it aligned in 2019 with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy commitment. Clorox seeks to prevent plastic waste and pollution in packaging, pledging to halve its use of virgin plastic and fiber by 2030 while doubling PCR recycled plastic. By 2025, it wants to achieve 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging. (None of that addresses closing the loop on the synthetic wipes themselves.)

The bleach and Brita filter maker is also phasing out PVC and supporting emerging refill models. Its recyclable Glad food bags and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing are available through the innovative Loop reusable packaging service. Clorox reportedly seeks to build on its legacy of "natural" products, burnished when it bought Burt’s Bees in 2008, and in its own formulation of the Green Works line of household cleaners.

Chuck Robbins, Cisco

Chuck Robbins, Chairman and CEO, Cisco Systems

LinkedIn | Company profile

As CEO since 2015, Chuck Robbins has earned accolades for taking Cisco’s corporate responsibility to new heights while keeping the enterprise hardware brand nimble in the cloud computing era. In 2016, he issued an edict to positively affect 1 billion people by 2025. Last year, he set a new corporate purpose: "To power an inclusive future for all."

The company and its foundation have pledged more than half a billion dollars toward coronavirus relief. Cisco pledged $50 million in 2018 to address Silicon Valley homelessness and sponsors numerous programs and competitions to bridge digital divides and reward planet-positive technology innovations.

Because Cisco’s technologies underpin many of the world’s "webscale" data centers, its advances enable a more energy-efficient, less emissions-intense internet. Its efficient $1 billion Silicon One architecture, for instance, squeezes more bandwidth out of routers.

Since 2007, Cisco has reduced its GHG emissions by 55 percent since 2007. It has almost reached the goals for 2022 of 85 percent renewable electricity globally and 87 percent energy efficiency for its rack-mounted hardware.

Robbins, who joined the company in 1997, also has led a top-down shift calling on the 75,000 employees to embrace circular principles such as modular designs in all products by 2025, building on Cisco’s seasoned product takeback and remanufacturing programs.

He serves on the board of Ford Foundation, is a Business Roundtable member and has called himself "the ultimate optimist."

"OK, how is it that a kid who lived on a dirt road in Georgia has become CEO of a major tech company?" he said in 2019. "And I just realized that we have to run a good business, but there’s more to it. We need to take advantage of the power we’ve been given."

Ulf Mark Schneider, Nestle

Ulf Mark Schneider, CEO, Nestlé; Vevey, Switzerland

Company profile

In 2020, Nestlé’s Haagen Dazs ice cream, Nescafé and Purina pet food flew off store shelves. The world’s biggest food company also created vegan "tuna" and tweaked its plant-based Sensational burger. In September, the Coffee mate maker opened an R&D test kitchen for sustainable dairy products and vegan "meats."

Ulf Mark Schneider, CEO since 2017, likes to boost markets in areas he’d like to accelerate. The German-American MBA sees the bottom-line benefit for "Creating Shared Value" and improving livelihoods across 2,000 brands in 189 countries.

Last month, Nestlé announced it will sweeten its climate-mitigation efforts with $3.6 billion toward regenerative agriculture into 2025. Working with farmers supports the company’s goals to eliminate its environmental impact and slash emissions in half by 2030, reaching net-zero by 2050.

"This is a time when people increasingly look towards business as a force for good and making something happen, so this is our part and we are fully committed to playing that part," Schneider said in September.

As for closing the loop, Schneider is leading Nestlé toward 100-percent recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. The CPG giant in 2019 created its Institute of Packaging Sciences and joined the New Plastics Economy as a core partner. Nestlé last year released Nespresso pods with 80 percent recycled aluminum.

The bottled water seller knows that whether an item actually gets recycled is at the mercy of regional infrastructure, so it’s funding efforts to improve recycling technologies for vexing materials such as films, bags and bubble wrap, including a pilot effort with a curbside-pickup recycling plant in Pennsylvania.

Here too, Schneider seeks to nurture an early market, buying 2 million metric tons of food-grade recycled plastics at a premium of close to $2 billion.

Harmit Singh, Levi Strauss & Co.

Harmit Singh, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Levi Strauss & Co.

LinkedIn | Company profile

Long an influencer in style and sustainability, Levi Strauss pioneered low-water techniques to finish and weather jeans, and its Screened Chemistry program led to removing hazardous chemicals from its supply chain. Then it open-sourced these innovations for the benefit of wider industry.

"At Levi’s, it’s not only important what we make but how we make it," Harmit Singh told GreenBiz in 2017, describing how sustainability was first embraced to mitigate risk and since has become core to the fabric of Levi Strauss’ values. After joining Levi’s in 2013, Singh visited its factories in Turkey and India. "How companies conduct themselves — if they are committed to clean water, if they treat workers well, if they are good stewards of natural resources — means a great deal to those communities," he said in 2019. "The visit cemented my sense of how important this work is."

Thirty years after Levi’s launched its supply chain code of conduct to support apparel workers’ well-being, the company is moving toward circular models across design, sourcing, manufacturing, use and reuse. The new, recyclable fabrics it has developed include single-fiber nylon and recyclable denim for its Wellthread line of jeans.

From the New York Stock Exchange podium, Singh cheered on the company as it went public in March 2019 for the second time. Espousing Levi’s tagline of "profit through principles," he helped to establish the U.S. chapter of Accounting for Sustainability. Singh joined the denim maker after driving growth as CFO at Hyatt Hotels in Chicago and Yum! Brands and Pizza Hut in Dallas, with previous work in Singapore and Delhi.

Bob Swan, Intel

Bob Swan, CEO, Intel; San Jose, California

LinkedIn | Company profile

Bob Swan describes 2020 as the most important year yet in Intel’s history, as COVID-19 drove a "digital transformation on steroids." In May, he issued three sweeping global challenges for technology to meet, which require outside collaboration and come with measurable benchmarks: revolutionizing health and safety; boosting social inclusivity; and making computing carbon-neutral.

The more people analyze, capture and process data, the more the company must advance transistor density — a fitting challenge, given that Moore’s law began in the mind of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

Intel seeks to build the world’s most efficient computer, neutral in carbon, water and waste. It has boosted manufacturing waste recovery and reuse by 275 percent over the past three years.

"It’s very important for us that purpose isn’t something that goes on the wall and social responsibility isn’t something that goes in a report; so they’re one and the same," Swan said in December, entering his third year as CEO. Bringing his ample CFO experience from Intel, eBay, GE Lighting and even Webvan, Swan underscores how integrating sustainability and carbon neutrality benefits customers, investors and communities.

Intel’s RISE acronym covers responsibility, inclusion and sustainability — the "e" being its enabling technologies. The company met most of its 2020 goals along those lines, reaching global pay equity, keeping a workforce whose gender and minority makeup reflects that of the greater labor market and raising spending with diverse suppliers to $1 billion.

Next up: doubling the number of women and minorities among its leadership by 2030. Applying artificial intelligence and cloud technologies, Intel is establishing a Global Inclusion Index open standard for hiring across industries. Intel AI for Youth seeks to bridge the digital divide in STEM education. Also ahead: Intel seeks to become net-positive in water by 2030, also achieving 100-percent renewable power, zero waste to landfill and net-positive water.

Carol Tome, UPS

Carol Tomé, CEO, UPS; Atlanta

LinkedIn | Company profile

Imagine leaving retirement just in time to guide UPS through a pandemic. Carol Tomé became her industry’s first female CEO on March 12. Nine months later, she oversaw the company’s first shipments of the earliest Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, which must be pampered at close to negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tomé's talk of putting people first jibes with the UPS position of linking sustainability with social responsibility. (Its foundation backed nonprofits with several million dollars following spring’s racial justice crisis.) Tomé spent 24 years as Home Depot CFO, sometimes working the night shift in the retail stores, and continued to give store workers bonuses during the 2008 Great Recession.

"To impact people, help them get to their highest potential," Tomé told Fortune in October. "I view that as job No. 1. Job No. 2 is to get the stock price moving."

Under her guidance, UPS is moving forward on an ambitious partnership with London-based Arrival for 10,000 purpose-built modular electric vehicles — a sharp turn from UPS’s fleet history that began with a used Model T. The companies, which already had worked together in Europe on a pilot project, soon will be sited only several hours apart. UPS Ventures also made a minority investment in the Arrival, which seeks to build micro-factories to speed production.UPS has aligned with other sustainability innovations recently, such as its exclusive partnership on the 2019 launch of Loop, the zero-waste service for goods delivering groceries and other packaged goods.

More on this topic