By Aaron Viles
Last year, world leaders met in Paris to hash out a global climate deal to curb greenhouse gases and prepare countries and communities from the unavoidable impacts of climate change, made so by decades-long feet-dragging and unwillingness to act.
While these public solutions are critical to fighting climate change, equally important are the voluntary steps taken by the private sector that have a direct positive effect and show by example that environmental protection and business success need not be at odds.
Of course, this list is focused solely on environmental considerations, and is offered without assessment of a company’s treatment of workers, either domestically or in overseas factories. More environmental groups are aware of the intersectionality of movements to support the environment and workers, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that exciting new work.
Here are 10 companies that have taken big steps to address a host of environmental issues, from waste and pollution to climate change and deforestation:
When you think about green businesses, Japanese electronics company Panasonic probably isn’t the first company to pop into your head. In fact, in 2014, Fortune found that Panasonic suffered the largest perception gap between the actions the company’s taken and what people think it’s done.
Sustainability is a key part of the company’s corporate citizenship activities and has influenced everything from energy-saving production improvements to the adoption of recycling-oriented manufacturing.
One of the coolest ways Panasonic is walking the walk is with its new North American headquarters. Historically located in suburban Secaucus, NJ, the company moved to a prime location in downtown Newark in 2013. The move was hailed as a key way to revitalize the struggling city, but for Panasonic, it fulfilled a sustainability mission.
The company built a new LEED certified tower (gold exteriors, platinum interiors) just blocks from Newark Penn Station, a key transit node for both local and regional transit. This connectivity and transit accessibility has led to a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of workers commuting to work by car alone from 88 to 36 percent. Panasonic’s VP for corporate communications estimates that the move has taken 500 cars off the road every day.
2. New Belgium Brewing Company
Brewing beer can have a lot of environmental downsides, from the energy required to superheat mash to the disposal of spent grain and other waste. Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company, the third-largest craft brewery in the United States, is proving that you don’t need to harm the environment to make it big.
Being eco-friendly is part of the company’s culture and brand, and it’s made an astonishing number of environmental investments. Solar panels help power the bottling plant; an anaerobic digester processes industrial wastewater into energy to power the brewing process; company-issued bicycles help employees get around the 50-acre brewery site.
Beyond its operations, New Belgium has taken a political stand on sustainability too. It was the twentieth company—and the first brewery—to join Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy coalition in 2011. Today, 19 breweries have joined to sign the Brewery Climate Declaration in support of reducing carbon pollution.
At first blush, you may balk at the inclusion of Walmart on this list about environmentally-friendly companies. But the mega-retailer has made some key sustainable choices that, thanks to its large market share, can have huge ripple effects.
Walmart’s 2014 decision to stock products from organic supplier Wild Oats garnered attention and praise for expanding access to organic foods at more affordable prices. That followed a 2013 update to its chemicals policy, which focused on both improving ingredient disclosure and replacing 10 hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. Even earlier, Walmart committed to exclusively selling sustainable seafood.
In addition to the direct impact of increasing sales of organic foods (as of April 2015, Wild Oats organic products were available in more than 3,800 Walmart stores) and reducing sales of products with dangerous chemicals, these policies all directly impact Walmart’s suppliers. Walmart’s support of organic food buoys the industry and creates more demand and sales opportunities for organic farmers. The company’s chemical policy provides a strong incentive for suppliers to adhere to stricter standards or risk losing access to Walmart customers.
Apple has a reputation for being cutting edge, a reputation that holds when it comes to going green. Apple’s $848 million energy deal with a solar farm in California enabled the company to power all its operations with renewable energy. A few months later it committed to getting 100 percent of its paper packaging from sustainable sources to protect the world’s remaining virgin forests.
Like Panasonic, it too has invested in ways to help employees reduce their commute emissions, with 10,000 employees using the company’s transit subsidy and 2,700 carpooling in commuter buses.
Apple’s rejection of climate denialism can’t go unmentioned. In 2009, the company loudly and publicly quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its stance on climate change. Its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report opens with the line: “We don’t want to debate climate change. We want to stop it.” This bold stance from a globally-renowned company helps bolster support for climate action and sustainable business practices.
In June 2015, Ikea announced it would invest €1 billion in sustainability efforts, including buying renewable energy to power its stores and offices, and implementing sustainable manufacturing. As The Telegraph points out, “The figure dwarfs the amounts pledged by some countries to the UN Green Climate Fund. Germany, one of the biggest donors, pledged €750m.”
This is just the latest step in a long history of eco-friendly investments the Swedish furniture giant has made. The installation of rooftop solar to power the company’s new St. Louis, MO, store is the 42nd such installation in the United States, and the company has also entered the residential solar market.
In addition to buildings, Ikea has greened many of the products it sells. It introduced a vegan version of its famous Swedish meatballs, a nod to opposers of the environmentally intensive meat industry. In September 2015, Ikea announced its plan to sell only certified seafood. That same month was the first that 100 percent of its cotton was sustainably sourced from farmers who use less water, chemicals, and fertilizers. All that’s just the tip of the company’s green efforts.
IBM has been a leader in sustainability for decades, a status recognized in 2013 by the European Union Code of Conduct for Data Centers. In 2015, the company made public commitments to continue its legacy through reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, while simultaneously getting 20 percent of its global electricity from renewable sources over the same time frame.
Perhaps more impressive is the company’s recognition of its influence over its supply chain. With 18,000 suppliers in more than 90 countries, IBM’s efforts to infuse sustainability—including the 2010 requirement that all suppliers have an environmental management program and that they publicly report their progress—have large ripple effects.
Unilever has also been lauded for its sustainability commitments, most recently by being top ranked in the 2015 Climate Survey among companies for tackling climate issues, drawn from responses from 624 sustainability experts from 69 countries. More than 20 percent of respondents said the company was the number one contributor to climate solution.
In addition to strong support among senior leadership, Unilever has been an outspoken advocate about the importance of curbing deforestation. In 2010, the company committed to achieve zero net deforestation in 10 years, meaning for every acre of forest cleared, an equal acreage must be replanted. Unilever’s CEO has called deforestation the “most urgent climate challenge.”
The company is already outperforming its targets. As of 2012, all of its palm oil came from sustainable sources, three years ahead of schedule, through the purchase of GreenPalm certificates, an offset program for companies using palm oil. Rather than stop there, Unilever has pushed forward to trace all its palm oil to sustainable sources. As of 2014, 58 percent of the company’s palm oil was traceable, including 98 percent that was sourced for its European Foods business.
Although Chipotle has had its share of bad PR of late due to food contamination, the fast-food behemoth deserves a lot of credit for making ethical sourcing not only cool, but profitable. Chipotle released its “Food with Integrity” statement in 2001, which includes sourcing vegetables from healthy soil and meats from farms where animals are pasture-raised and treated humanely.
When push came to shove, the company proved it was willing to drop pork carnitas from the menu on one-third of its restaurants rather than compromise on its commitment to responsible husbandry. Chipotle further caused a stir in 2014 when it removed all genetically-modified products from its foods, proving a commitment to biodiversity and natural products.
Most importantly though, Chipotle has done all this while making a lot of money. Even while pork stayed off menus, Chipotle posted a billion-dollar earnings quarter in Q1 of 2015. Even a more recent slip in Q3 was not attributed to ecologically-responsible sourcing, but to other costs rising. The clear takeaway is that sustainability and profits need not be at odds—a compelling counterargument to the usual complaints about the effect of environmental stewardship on the economy.
Massachusetts-based Biogen has an impressive streak running, capturing the top spot for biotechnology firms on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index two years in a row, and being named the greenest company in the world by Newsweek in 2015. One big contributing factor was reaching operational carbon neutrality, the result of a multiyear effort to reduce emissions.
The company’s investments included everything from energy efficiency improvements in its facilities to coordinating with suppliers around achieving environmental goals. This follows becoming virtually zero-waste in 2012 (98 percent of all waste is diverted), achieved through both reducing initial operational waste and finding creative ways to compost and recycle the waste it does create.
Rather than resting on its laurels, Biogen set new bold sustainability targets, including reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 80 percent by 2020, compared to a 2006 baseline. It’s also tackling that last two percent of waste that makes it to landfills and investing in LEED-certified facilities. Don’t be surprised to continue seeing Biogen top lists in years to come.
Though ChicoBag, a maker of reusable grocery bags and other products, is not as large as the companies cited above, I would be remiss not to acknowledge at least one company that isn’t just making green improvements to its business, but whose actual money-making model is a green initiative.
Plastic bags are a particularly insidious environmental hazard, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, harming wildlife that unwittingly consume small pieces of it, and littering our beautiful landscape for the millennia they take to decompose. Plastic bag bans have grown in popularity as more consumers and citizens see the harm of these wasteful containers.
ChicoBag provides an alternative and makes money doing it. In line with its business, the company doesn’t use what it calls the “Big 4”–single-use plastic bags, single-use water bottles, single-use cups and polystyrene takeout containers–and has an aggressive, mission-oriented zero-waste program. In 2014, B Corporation made ChicoBag an honoree for Best for the World Environment.
Even small businesses can make a difference by implementing sustainable business practices. For more information, read “How Green Is Your Business?”