Here in the US, who are the big, bold corporate leaders when it comes to corporate responsibility? It’s not a long list. CVS’s decision to stop selling tobacco was a big deal, but I’ll bet you don’t know the name of the company’s CEO.* I’m a big fan of David Crane of NRG Energy, who has been outspoken on the climate issue, but NRG burns a lot of coal. GE’s Jeff Immelt, who talk a lot about energy and climate in the late 2000s, has quieted down, and he now backs the Keystone XL pipeline. Most interestingly, perhaps, Tim Cook of Apple has been speaking out about climate change and gay rights, and the company is doing good work on renewable energy and labor rights in its supply chain. But there aren’t a lot of CEOs in corporate America who are using their influence on behalf of the common good.
Then there’s Howard Schultz. One of corporate America’s longest-running CEOs — he has led Starbucks as either its CEO or chairman since 1987 — Schultz built not only a global economic powerhouse (Sbux has more than 20,000 stores in 65 countries) but also a company that stands for something. This week, the company sponsored The Concert for Valor, a moving tribute to American’s veterans on the National Mall.
I’ve paid close attention to Starbucks since the early 2000s, when I devoted a chapter to the company in my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business launched a new “hub” on leadership, so it seemed like a good time to write about Schultz, and why he matters.
Here’s how my story begins:
“Why are there aren’t more Paul Polmans?”
Joel Makower, the writer and founder of GreenBiz Group, put that question to Unilever CEO Paul Polman at last week’s Net Impact conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“There are 5,000 in the audience here,” Polman replied deftly, playing to a crowd of students and young professionals, who aim to use their business skills to change the world for the better.
It’s a good question, though. Why, indeed, aren’t there more CEOs willing to put society’s social and environmental needs at the core of their business, particularly here in the US?
Yvon Chouinard, the rock climber and environmentalist who started Patagonia, is one example, but he no longer runs his company – and in any event, it’s privately-held, which allowed him more room to maneuver.
A slew of business executives founded or led smaller, crunchy-granola firms with impressive environmental records – including George Siemon of Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt, and Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Farms – but their influence is, or was, limited. It’s no wonder Polman sometimes seems to tower over the crowd of global CEOS.
Then there’s Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.
Schultz in the news this week, which is why his named occurred to me when I thought about Joel’s question. But for the past two decades, he has built a company that revolutionised the fast-food industry: providing ownership and healthcare coverage to its workers, investing in the environmental practices and wellbeing of coffee growers, supporting marriage equality, promoting job-creation during the last recession and, now, honouring America’s veterans.
You can read the rest here.
Feel free in the comments to name other leaders in corporate America who are using their power to help solve social and environmental problems.
*It’s Larry Merlo.