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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: These Execs Prove Sustainability is Big Business

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

"Certainly, nobody would consider Donald Trump a champion of corporate social responsibility, and yet his actions are unwittingly causing the most widespread and vocal mobilization of concerned corporate leaders perhaps in our nation’s history," Reed Bundy, founder of Ethostrategies, wrote in a recent op/ed on TriplePundit.

This was a fairly common sentiment in the early days of the new administration. As the Trump White House seemed intent on rolling back environmental measures and targeting immigrants, eyes quickly turned to the business community and how they would step in to fill this gap.

And while so far Trump seems tied to the tired sentiment that sustainability kills business, some of the country's most successful corporate leaders prove otherwise. Here are just a few of them.

Paul Polman

It's hard to believe Paul Polman stepped into Unilever's CEO role only eight years ago. In that short time, his name and vision have become synonymous with the consumer packaged goods giant. And while it's not exactly common to hear that a Fortune 500 CEO is out to "save the world," Polman is one of few exceptions.

In fact, a feature with just that title -- "Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s Plan to Save the World" -- was published in Fortune magazine last month. In the interview, Polman boldly claimed: “The real purpose of business has always been to come up with solutions that are relevant to society, to make society better.”

This philosophy now permeates every aspect of Unilever's operations. Through its Sustainable Living Plan, the company aims to grow its business while significantly reducing environmental impact and pioneering development around the world.

“I am really more interested in development,” Polman told Fortune. “And there is no better way than using companies like this to drive development ... I never wanted to be a CEO, and I don’t really care about that." Under Polman's watch, expect the company to continue to lead in areas such as climate action and social justice.

Hamdi Ulukaya

Sometimes the man and the moment meet perfectly. And when it comes to building a billion-dollar business, the moment was right for Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. As the growing popularity of Greek yogurt took the world by surprise, Chobani was close at hand to reap the benefits. But selling protein-packed goodness is only the start for the company's revolutionary CEO.

Ulukaya hails from what is now largely Kurdish Eastern Turkey and emigrated to the U.S. in 1994. And as he grew Chobani from a single plant in upstate New York, he remained a steadfast recruiter of immigrants and refugees -- a practice that attracted boycotts and even death threats. And last year, he turned 10 percent of his company's stock over to those employees in an ESOP.

But Ulukaya is not content to champion equality within his own four walls. Last month Chobani joined nearly 100 other companies in filing a legal brief to oppose Donald Trump's restrictions on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.

“As an immigrant who came to this country looking for opportunity, it’s very difficult to think about and imagine what millions of people around the world must be feeling right now," Ulukaya wrote in a letter to employees, as reported by the Idaho Statesman. "America has always been a symbol of hope, tolerance and diversity — and these are values we must work very hard to uphold.”

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield

The dynamic duo behind cult ice cream favorite Ben & Jerry's is no stranger to activism. After selling their company to Unilever for a reported $326 million in 2000, the childhood friends weren't content to ride off into the sunset.

The two are regularly arrested at political protests, including last year for their opposition to voter suppression. “The history of our country is that nothing happens until people start putting their bodies on the line and risk getting arrested," Cohen said after he was collared by the cops.

And their company is also a mainstay in the activist fray. Specialty Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavors aligned the brand with the quest for voting rights and racial equality. And its support for the Black Lives Matter movement even attracted boycotts last year.

Elon Musk

It's hard to discuss visionary sustainability leaders without mentioning Elon Musk.

Yes, his libertarian political philosophy is a far cry from the far-left Ben and Jerry. And he's more likely to discuss seriously scary stuff like robots taking over the world. But Musk built his fame and fortune around leveraging technology to make the world a better and more efficient place -- a stance he stuck with as the billions rolled in.

His electric vehicle company, Tesla Motors, is largely credited with giving EVs the 'cool factor' they needed to bust into the mainstream marketplace. And after merging the automaker with SolarCity, where he serves as chairman of the board, Musk is out to create a vertically-integrated clean energy giant that can revolutionize the space.

It's true that Musk is far from perfect. He tends to get snippy when challenged, as we saw recently when a former employee complained about Tesla's working conditions. But if someone wants to personally bankroll game-changing efforts like mainstreaming clean power and expanding space exploration, the business community is bound to take notice -- although the moves come with Musk's unique and somewhat dystopian flare.

“We must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy,” Musk said last year, “or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse.”

Yvon Chouinard

"When we make a decision because it’s the right thing to do for the planet, it ends up also being good for the business," Yvon Chouinard wrote in his new book “Let My People Go Surfing,” excerpted here on TriplePundit.

And the Patagonia founder puts his money where his mouth is. His company is both a certified B Corporation and a registered benefit corporation. It is a pioneer in the circular economy, with its constant reminders to repair worn clothing and think twice before buying something new. And it's a steadfast supporter of public lands.

The company managed to do all of that while steadily increasing revenue, raking in around $750 million in sales last year, CEO Rose Marcario told Fortune.

Patagonia arguably outdid itself last year by donating all Black Friday sales revenue to charity. The company sold a record $10 million in merchandise, all of which went to grassroots environmental groups.

Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher founded her eponymous fashion label back in 1984 -- and sustainability was central from the start. With an emphasis on simple basics and brand authenticity, Fisher amassed a loyal following for her company -- which is now worth over $400 million.

"These days I'm focused on the concept of good growth," Fisher told Inc. magazine in 2014. "I constantly ask myself and my employees, 'How do we grow in ways that are sustainable, and ways we can be proud of?'"

The certified B Corp is targeting 100 percent sustainability with its 2020 goals.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/U.N. Women; 2) Chobani (press use only); 3) Flickr/NVIDIA Corporation; 4) Flickr/Matt Dunham

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni