The corporate giants transforming business for a better planet


As the planet battles resource depletion, responsible businesses will be the drivers of a sustainable planet. Lee Williams showcases three multinational companies who are leading the way.

The UN climate change conference in Paris is upon us. At previous conferences, governments have failed to draw up concrete plans to tackle climate change, leaving the Paris meeting increasingly anticipated with a ‘now or never’ feeling. However, this hasn’t stopped a band of global corporate giants from attempting to lead the way and tackle the problem themselves.


2930776659_3487a1a7c8_zM&S has a long history of corporate social responsibility. In 2007 it decided to up its game further by producing Plan A, a detailed strategy to put sustainability at the heart of its culture. “A number of things happened in 2006,” says Adam Elman, global head of Plan A delivery at M&S. “Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out; the Stern Report came out. We thought, not only do our customers want it, but more fundamentally, if we don’t change, we won’t have a business for another 120 years.”

The goals were ambitious – a hundred commitments to be achieved over five years including zero waste to landfill, zero net carbon emissions, and using only self-sustainable fish.

From the start, M&S realised that such ambitious and widespread targets required a transformation of the culture running through the company.

“We knew the way businesses had traditionally delivered CSR – the team on the side – that was never going to work,” says Elman. “Plan A is a business transformation programme. This isn’t a team of 50 people to the side. This is 84,000 people.”

The culture shift seemed to work. By 2012, the company had achieved 96 of its 100 commitments including the zero waste to landfill and zero net carbon emissions targets. Now Plan A 2020 is in effect, extending some of the original commitments has proved so successful M&S has opened it up for other companies. “There’s always more to be done,” says Elman. “We’re just 15 to 20 per cent along the journey. We’re restless in our pursuit of doing more.”


2383222548_b38cbaa2e5_zRadical corporate change was something another transformational giant, Puma, didn’t shy away from. When Puma published its first Environmental Profit and Loss Account (EP&L ) in 2011, then-CEO Jochen Zeitz announced: “A new business paradigm is necessary and a transformation of corporate reporting will be central to this – one that works with nature and not against it.”

The EP&L was itself a radical change to the way businesses impact upon the environment. It was arguably the first attempt by any business to put a monetary value on its environmental impacts. The subsequent report, which covered the company’s entire supply chain, would provide accurate analysis of where the biggest impacts were being made and how they could be tackled.

“The EP&L includes everything,” says Puma’s global director of sustainability, Dr Reiner Hengstmann, “including our corporate offices worldwide and the entire supply chain, from the factories and assembly lines down to the customer. In essence, if nature would have a bank account, this is the money you would have to pay for the damage you have caused.”

Now Puma are looking at extending the method to account for social impacts too. “If you want to have a complete P&L of a company,” says Dr Hengstmann, “it’s the financial P&L, it’s the environmental P&L and it’s also the social P&L. This part is still missing. But I think we will come to this as well as being part of the entire equation.”


9898008476_cc45700185_z (1)When Paul Polman took over as Unilever’s CEO in 2009, he spent a night in the original owner William Lever’s rooftop bed. Lever had been one of the pioneers of corporate social responsibility in Victorian times, providing purpose-built housing, education, healthcare and good wages for his workers. Polman came away from his night in Lever’s bed even more determined to return the company to its socially responsible roots.

In 2010 he launched Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, a ten-year strategy to cut the firm’s negative environmental and social impacts. The goals were nothing if not ambitious: to reduce the environmental impact of the business by half; to improve health and wellbeing for more than a billion people; to achieve zero net deforestation; to source all its agricultural products sustainably; and to derive 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.

Today, at the plan’s midpoint, many of the goals are on target or have surpassed their target. Earlier this year Polman was named number one in The Salt ‘World’s Top 100 Compassionate Business Leaders’ list.

Perhaps then, even if Paris fails to provide the concerted effort required to tackle climate change, hope will remain. If so, arguably much of it will come from corporate giants like M&S, Puma and Unilever.

Both Adam Elman and Dr Hengstmann are cautiously optimistic. “If I wasn’t optimistic, I would have quit my job already,” says Hengstmann.“I think we can make it better, but it’s almost 12 o’clock.”


Photo credits: Tahir HashmiUnited Nations Information Centres, and Simon D from Flickr