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8 Industry Leaders Signaling the Future of Sustainability

The world has changed and so are the world’s leading companies. From Aldi to Alibaba: We’ve listed 8 industry leaders that we find most inspiring.

Written by Elizabeth J. W. Spencer

The companies highlighted here aren’t social enterprises nor did they originally design their business models around impact. These businesses are leading their industries in growth, while adapting to create a greener, more equitable world. They are taking sustainability seriously as they adjust to the needs that arise. Now let’s find out how these eight companies are standing out on the sustainability front.


These businesses are leading their industries in growth, while adapting to create a greener, more equitable world.

- Global Imprint

Driving Transparency in Consumer Goods

Patagonia is well known for its environmental activism through campaigns like “Don’t Buy This Jacket” in 2011 to encourage recycling and repair, or for donating $10 million to fight climate change in 2019. But it is equally as committed to combating human trafficking and demanding decent working conditions in an industry riddled with labor issues. Patagonia is doing its part to lead the way on labor policies and the company has learned from its mistakes. In 2011, Patagonia found through its own audits that there was modern day slavery in its supply chains—specifically at one of their tier 2 suppliers. For a company that believes in “Let My People Go Surfing,” this was a gut-wrenching discovery that spurred Patagonia toward more supply chain action. No company in the apparel world—with complex supply chains and hundreds of factories—can be perfect, but Patagonia is definitely a leader. In 2010 it co-founded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition with Walmart, and it is committed to in-house and third party audits that monitor all the way to tier 2 and select 3 tier suppliers. Patagonia was the recipient of the second highest rating in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report. Patagonia is paving the way with their Supplier Code of Conduct that traces; audits; publicly naming all facilities; and calls for all suppliers and subcontractors to adhere to standards.

Financing the Future—and the Crisis

At the end of 2019 Goldman Sachs pledged $750 billion over the next decade toward sustainable finance themes such as transportation, food production, and accessible education. The bank is driven by societal as well as market need for climate action and inclusive growth, but at the end of the day, it also makes business sense. Then Covid-19 swept the world and Goldman Sachs took its commitment further with $18 billion in social bonds to meet the growing needs of responding to Covid-19 just in the first half of 2020. Green bonds have been relatively well known but the global coronavirus crisis has made “social” the new “green.” There is a gap in the needs that the world has, not just related to Covid-19, and the financing to get us to that future. Banks like Goldman Sachs are key to financing the future that we all see.

Leading Food and Beverage with Affordable Sustainability

Aldi is branded as a discount grocery store that isn’t giving itself enough credit. When we think of a sustainable grocery store, most of us would think of Whole Foods—a high-end sustainability-oriented company. Whole Foods is doing its part, but surprisingly the list goes on and on in regard to the steps that Aldi is taking and the commitments the company has made toward climate action. In its last sustainability report for 2018 it had recycled more than 250,000 tons, as well as donated more than 28 million pounds of food to fight hunger. Aldi’s warehouses have a refrigeration system that has a zero Global Warming Potential and it has solar on nine distribution centers and ninety-nine stores. Looking toward the future, Aldi plans to make 100% of its packing reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Aldi has placed sustainable shopping in reach for cost conscious shoppers and has demonstrated that discount brands can also drive a sustainable future.

The Circular Economy Put to Use in the Resource Transformation Industry

In almost every industry, the circular economy of eliminating waste, keeping materials, and regenerating the resources that we have is replacing the linear economy of “take, make, and waste.” WestRock is a packaging solution company that is innovating for the circular economy in the world of packaging. It is replacing shrink wrap, plastic rings for beverages, and polyethylene coatings with innovative products that can be recycled. Walmart commissioned the company to make 100% paper-based packing for a new razor. In a partnership with Starbucks it recycled 25 million coffee cups. Replacing polyethylene coating with EnShield® Natural Kraft might not seem that exciting, but this new technology is revolutionary for providing completely recyclable paperboard products for the food industry to combat the issue of single use plastics. These innovative WestRock products are linked to consumer goods and food services that generate millions of dollars in revenue.

Closing the Loop in Infrastructure

The company Waste Management (WM) is a critical piece of the circular economy, as well as turning trash into renewable energy. It has taken the old linear model of take, make, use, dispose, pollute and transformed its business model to close the loop with remaking and recycling. Of course, WM has a huge focus on recycling and hopes to be recycling 38% of its waste by 2028 but it is doing more than just recycling for its customers, as it draws energy from waste, reduces greenhouse gases (GHG), composts organic materials, and repurposes landfills. WM has the nation’s largest truck fleet powered with renewable natural gas captured from the company’s own landfills. This year WM is predicting that it will also capture enough methane to power two million residential homes. WM’s new generation of landfills are smart, safe, innovating with friendly microorganisms to speed up decomposition, and when the landfill is closed it is used as a solar field. It continues to innovate with new technology that is currently being tested that could reduce the lifespan of a landfill from thirty to ten years.

Intersection of Social Issues and Shareholder Value in Healthcare

Merck Biotech has identified what UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are aligned with its mission and has focused on these to drive impact globally. It is especially focused on SDG 3: Access to Health and Wellbeing since it is most closely aligned with Merck’s mission. Its Shared Value Toolkit launched in 2017, is creating meaningful change with business solutions that help the Merck team to identify the intersection of social issues globally while delivering value to shareholders. Merck actually believes that it will be more profitable as it finds solutions to move the needle on SDG 3. Currently, its corporate responsibility team is aggressively moving away from traditional philanthropy to a more strategic performance-based model. Just as an example, the company has made significant headway in fighting worm disease in Africa through the accessibility of its products coupled with awareness programs.

A Gas Company Transformed

Ørsted didn't just change its name from DONG Energy—it changed its whole business, in a hard-fought battle over the last decade, from coal to being the world leader in renewable energy through offshore wind capacity. DONG Energy used to be the Danish Oil and Natural Gas company that emitted one-third of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Its campaign of transformation started in 2009 following a reckoning climate summit in that same year—and they have never looked back. At the time, only 15% of the energy they produced was green and now 85% of the company’s energy is green. In 2018 it reduced CO2 emissions intensity per kilowatt hour by 72%. Ørsted isn't stopping there; its last coal plant is set to close by 2023 and by 2025 it will supply 30 million people with green energy.

An SDG Giant in Technology

Alibaba is using tech and innovation to drive achievement of the UN SDGs. In 2017 it launched an RMB 10 billion fund to support SDG 1: No Poverty. Besides the company’s focus on poverty alleviation, it is notable that it has also made contributions to 16 of the 17 SDGs. A few examples of its SDG action: helping to end poverty in Taobao villages through residents selling its products through e-commerce; creating more than 40 million jobs across the company’s various platforms; implementing biodegradable package materials; and joining the fight against deforestation in China. Alibaba’s commitment to the SDGs was further cemented when Jack Ma, Alibaba Executive Chair, actually became the first person to be renamed as UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate.

Setting the Standard for Carbon Neutrality in Transportation

This list wouldn't be complete without mention of the first airline to commit to go carbon neutral, Delta Airlines. For this airline, offsetting some of its emissions wasn’t enough, it committed $1 billion to make it right. It is committed to innovating in the field of clean air travel, with a more efficient fleet, new projects to mitigate buying offsets and capture carbon, and increasing its commitment to emission reduction through new fuel sources. With the airline industry emitting 2% of global carbon dioxide, this is no small feat, and Delta Airlines is voluntarily leading the way for the rest of the industry.

There is no way to cover all that these businesses are doing to make this world a better place, or to list all of the impressive climate action statistics. We hope this gives a sampling of what sustainable action is being taken across various industries, as well as providing ideas for how your business can evolve toward sustainability without compromising profit.


About the Author

About Elizabeth J. W. Spencer
With a varied career in international politics, social enterprises and a tech start-up, the common thread for Elizabeth over the past decade has been the pursuit of sustainable development in emerging markets. Writing has been the medium to synthesize her experiences in between changing diapers and kissing skinned knees. Elizabeth believes that power of purpose-driven businesses to deliver profitable products at the intersection of societal and environmental benefits can change the world. She lives in an ‘01 converted Blue Bird school bus with her husband, two kids and a Vizsla.

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