The Rise of the Vocal CEO

by Aug 17, 2017

Something really interesting – and different – has been happening over the last several months. CEOs have been taking a vocal and visible stand for the environment and human rights.

When President Trump backed away from the Paris Climate Accord, several CEOs denounced his actions, and two (Elon Musk and Bob Iger) resigned from one of his advisory councils. This week, in the wake of Trump’s unwillingness to unequivocally condemn hate and bigotry, many more CEOs have voiced their intense disagreement with the president. Eight more left his advisory councils, and several others were slated to leave until the president preemptively disbanded the groups yesterday.

So what does this have to do with marketing and sustainability?


Our experience over the 12 years that we’ve been exclusively focused in the energy and environmental marketing arena is that when a CEO is committed to sustainability and/or social responsibility, the company really leads in those areas. Lee Scott, former CEO of Walmart, was an early devotee to the environment – and understood how doing the right thing for the environment and driving business success were inextricably linked. Walmart emerged as an early leader in sustainability, saving the company millions of dollars and slashing GHG emissions in the process.

Their leadership on the environment has not totally undone consumer perceptions that they treat employees unfairly. But, the truth is that Walmart shows up quite prominently in verbatim responses from consumers in our polling – we probe them on what companies they buy from and don’t buy from because of the company’s sustainability record. If not for leadership on the environment, my guess is Walmart would only show up on the “bad” list because of perceptions about their social record.

Paul Polman of Unilever is another good – and popular – example. Not long after landing at Unilever in 2009, Polman said publicly, “We’re going to double revenues while halving our environmental footprint.” He has been a passionate and tireless advocate for the environment, working to create the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and then pushing other CEOs to adopt them. Overall, revenue growth has been steady (a Fortune Magazine article earlier this year reported that revenues have increased by $4-$10 billion, depending on how you look at it with currency fluctuations factored in). Lately, revenue growth has slowed and there have been questions from Wall Street about Polman’s strategy. But he persists … and the result of that is the company continues to land in a comfortable spot on most admired company lists and the company’s brands consistently show up in our consumer polling as brands people buy because of the company’s environmental commitment.

In the same Fortune article I referenced a moment ago, Polman said this: “Five years ago, I could not get a single CEO to be on a panel about climate change. They were worried about being attacked by people in beards and sandals. Now many can talk about climate change.”

So the question is why? Why are CEOs now willing to talk about climate change? Why are they willing to publicly rebuke a president whose actions and words run counter to solving the climate problem and embracing human rights?

I’ve written about this quite a lot, and so have folks like Andrew Winston.

I think it boils down, predominantly, to three things:

  • The market cares – a lot – about it. In our latest polling, 49% of Americans want to be seen as someone who buys/uses environmentally friendly products. And as our forthcoming Millennial Pulse report reveals, buying from companies that do the right thing for people and the planet is how many people ages 20-36 express their environmental preferences and activism.
  • Many CEOs simply don’t see a business case for a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. The supply chain disruption and human capital disruption caused by climate change-related events will wreak havoc on multi-nationals’ ability to make and distribute products – and drive revenues.
  • I also think, increasingly, it’s a matter of legacy. CEOs are people, too. According to a variety of sources, the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO is now around 58. That makes them Boomers. Interestingly, LinkedIn spoke a couple of years ago at Sustainable Brands about some polling they did around the importance of working for a purpose-driven company. It turns out that working for a company with a strong sense of purpose mattered most to Boomers – even more so than Millennials.

As a CEO (albeit of a much smaller organization than the ones I’m writing about here), this makes perfect sense to me. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about “when I’m 80, what do I want to look back on and say I’ve accomplished?” It’s one of my favorite interview questions, as a matter of fact. When you’re a CEO, you know you’re in the position to make a tremendous difference in many people’s lives. I suspect many of the CEOs who have become more vocal about their disagreements with the president on key environmental and human rights issues have asked themselves the question, “How do I want to be remembered here – as being on the right side or wrong side of this issue?” And, increasingly, they want to be remembered as being on the right side of history – as people who took a stand when it mattered.

So if you’re a CMO or CSO – or even an NGO – now’s the time to grab a cup of coffee with your CEO and talk about legacy. I bet you’ll find a new willingness to take a public stand for what he/she wants to be remembered for.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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