Leading Sustainable Success

Recycle background with hand support sustainable idea watercolor

Realising the full growth potential of sustainable change takes inspired leadership, as these innovative impresarios prove

While the world has buckled up as it passed through turbulent times in the past two years, we are not through to clear skies just yet. With geopolitical, economic, and social pressures looming large on the horizon, navigating these headwinds takes farsighted leadership with an eye on creating a sustainable future and model of success.

Given the many growth catalysts that we now have access to, leaders and organisations can leverage these to create a better society at scale, where millions can prosper in an inclusive growth paradigm even as we work to fight climate change that can impact future generations.

A select clutch of leaders from civil society and industry are working to do exactly this, and we round up the contributions of a few of them as we seek to inspire others to follow their path.

When you’re the CEO of the world’s largest company by market cap, and the successor to one of the most revered leaders in Steve Jobs, you have a tall task ahead of you. But Cook’s vision is as equally world changing as Jobs’ was; in his own words, “If we can change the world with the devices we make, then we ought to be able to change the course of climate destruction worldwide,” Cook said in October. “At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to try.”

Known for being an operations wizard, the more idealistic side of Cook’s personality has come to the fore in recent years. Since he hired former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson in 2013, Apple’s environmental and social achievements have been impressive. It’s one of the first corporations to run 100% on renewable energy, and has boosted device recycling rates while developing aluminium with zero CO2 emissions to house its hardware. Cook’s commitment to battling climate change shows that this action item has to be on top of the agenda for any contemporary CEO today.

Tim Cook
CEO, Apple

The youngest member of Congress, Alexandria OcasioCortez rose to prominence as a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill when she began calling for a new Green New Deal, which could create trillions of dollars in investments in green energy and sustainability and uplift communities.

The idea is not new, but the Deal was the most detailed plan that acts as a set of principles and goals that outlines how climate change affects the economy, the environment, and national security, and outlines goals and projects for a 10-year national mobilization without specifying policy measures to course correct for greater sustainability.

The plan emphasizes environmental and social justice, acknowledging how historically oppressed groups (namely indigenous peoples, people of colour, the poor, and migrants) are more likely to be affected by climate change. The progressive and inclusive spirit of the Deal is reflected in calls for the protection of workers’ rights, community ownership, universal healthcare, and a job guarantee.

Calling for scalable action, she stirred emotions and captured the mind when saying, “Our lives are on the line…if we continue to allow power … with corporations to dictate the quality of our air … to dictate and tell us that we can keep burning fossil fuels, to dupe us, people will die”.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
American politician and activist

Jane Fonda has a long history of acting for the greater good, from marching against the Vietnam War in the 1970s to protesting the government’s inaction on climate change on the steps of the Capitol two years ago. Speaking on the subject of climate change, the thespian said, “There’s never been a ticking time bomb hanging over our heads. You know, this isn’t one war or one issue in one place. This is the future of the entire planet. There’s a looming catastrophe that will affect all of humanity. That’s what’s different. That’s never happened before in the history of humankind.”

Fonda has urged others to follow her example, asking us to seize the moment and put relentless pressure on world leaders to bring about meaningful change. “We need to go further, faster. Instead of changing straws and lightbulbs, we need to focus on changing policy and politicians. We need large numbers of people working together for solutions that work for the climate. Non-violent civil disobedience can help to mobilise that movement. At 84, I’m still ready to get arrested when the occasion demands it.”

“We are the last generation that still has a chance to force a course change that can save lives and species on a vast scale. Remember: the cure for despair is action. And if you can put yourself on the line, who knows who you might inspire?”

Jane Fonda,

Well-known for his lead roles in films like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Inception, Revenant, and Titanic, DiCaprio is an Academy award-winning actor. But it’s off-screen where he is doing his most meaningful work as a high-profile and ardent environmentalist dedicated to saving the planet since the past quarter of a century.

A chance meeting with US Vice President Al Gore in 1998 at the White House shaped the then 24-year-old DiCaprio’s future. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation was established that same year, with the mission to protect the planet and find ways of achieving a harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world. It now supports over 35 innovative conservation projects around the world that protect fragile ecosystems and key species. The Foundation also advocates for saving the planet through several media projects that highlights the gravity of the challenge to a worldwide audience.

When accepting his Best Actor award for The Revenant in 2016, DiCaprio used his platform to address the issues close to his heart, saying,

“The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world — the world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”

“We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the Indigenous peoples of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed…Let us not take this planet for granted; I do not take this night for granted.”

Rose might not have saved Jack in the Titanic, but Leo might yet save the planet…

Leonardo DiCaprio,

Joaquin Phoenix

The star of such films as Gladiator, Signs, and Joker, Phoenix is an outspoken vegan and environmental minded minimalist, who pledged to wear the same a custom-made, cruelty-free Stella McCartney tuxedo all throughout the 2020 awards season to cut down on fashion industry waste. And he stuck to his word, appearing at the 2021 Oscars in the same suit. He has also called on the acting fraternity to do more to support sustainability, calling into question a culture of excess by saying, “We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs. I’ll try to do better, and I hope you will too.” Days later, he was arrested while protesting during Jane Fonda’s “Fire Drill Fridays” climate change protest.

Speaking on the thought process that spurred his unique brand of advocacy, he stated, “I was looking at the landscape of all these various issues we are facing as part of our daily lives, and I was thinking about what should become part of our consideration—particularly for those who are compassionate and seek justice in the world. Now we’re becoming aware of the impact our consumption is having on the entire planet. And so it no longer feels like simply just a personal choice.” Indeed. May many more awaken to the possibility of creating a better planet for all.

Jesper Brodin

IKEA has always had a vision of furnishing people with “thin wallets and big dreams in their lives at home”, without taking more resources than the planet provides. And Jesper Brodin epitomises the Swedish major’s green philosophy. Brodin underlines how IKEA’s customers demand leadership on climate and circularity, and insists that sustainability is a matter of survival in selling everything from bookshelves and couches to lingonberry jam and vegan hot dogs.

Having catered to over a billion customers across 300 stores, IKEA has put sustainability at the forefront of all it does even before Brodin stepped up as CEO in 2017. The company produces more renewable energy than its operations consume, and has committed to electric vehicles for all last-mile deliveries by 2025, in addition to phasing out single-use plastic. Brodin has picked up the green gauntlet, taking full advantage of the liberty of being free from a focus on quarterly earnings and EBITDA thanks to the IKEA Group being owned by a foundation, to instead focus on green of a different currency, one that will pay back the planet several times over.

Leena Nair
Global CEO, Chanel

The imminently quotable Leena Nair, famed for being the first female and youngest-ever Chief Human Resources Officer of Anglo-Dutch FMCG major Unilever, had a curt message she wanted to get out to the corporate world: “You’re leaving too many people behind.”

Nair was a champion for equity, diversity, and inclusion, driving the transformation of Unilever’s leadership development, and its preparedness for the future of work. Her sweeping embrace of “purpose” and sustainability as integral pillars of business has seen her implore leaders to ensure that they carry along those that matter most as they ascend to greatness. “I have had moments of self-doubt and I continue to have moments of self-doubt. But the one thing that keeps me going through tough experiences is thinking about how I can make it easier for those who come after me…lift as you climb. Make it easier for those who come after you.” She has previously been on the record as saying, “People are the only sustainable competitive edge that a business has, because everything else can be matched.”

Beyond selling soap, or shampoo, or even iconic luxury fashion, Nair’s remit of creating lasting social or environmental change will be her lasting contribution to furthering SDG objectives, making communities and ecosystems great in the process. To use another of her delightful quotes, “Don’t wait for the storms to pass; learn to dance in the rain.”

One of the most prominent proponents of doing ‘Responsible Business’, Anand Mahindra has gone about building a sustainable business while rejuvenating the environment and inspiring industries. From building cleaner engines, to ensuring sustainable operations at its channel partners, Mahindra is working towards making the world a greener, cleaner and a better place to live in for all.

Mahindra has worked tirelessly to ensure his eponymous Group is Water Positive since 2014 and operates 22 landfill free manufacturing facilities/ resorts/ locations. The group has committed to doubling energy productivity in its major businesses and is increasingly using renewable energy. 20 of its group companies have set ‘Science Based Targets’, thus aligning themselves to the Paris Agreement. It is committed to plant a million plus trees every year through its Hariyali Program. The Group companies have consistently been featured on the DJSI and CDP rankings and M&M, its auto sector company, was ranked 17th among the ‘100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies’ in the world – the highest for an automobile company and for any Indian company in 2020.

Offering his thoughts, on being a good business champion, he said, “Purpose driven businesses are likely to be more resilient than those that do not embrace people and planet.” He refers to it as “good for my country, good for our businesses, and we owe that kind of constructive approach to future generations”. The Group is a pioneer in the country, taking aggressive and ambitious goals of being carbon-neutral by 2040, increasing energy productivity and announcing an internal carbon price.

Anand Mahindra
Chairman, Mahindra Group


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