From Egregious to Green: 5 CEOs Who Made an Environmental U-Turn


Image courtesy of Chiefport

A chief executive officer wields an awesome power over his companies' policies, employees and principles—and just how sustainable each will be. So when a previously ungreen CEO decides to adopt an ecologically responsible agenda, the effects can be wide-reaching, and exceptionally inspiring. Here's a list of the top 5 formerly environmentally oblivious business execs who've changed their tune for the greener.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times

1. Ray Anderson


He may be chairman now, but while he was the CEO of Interface, the world's largest producer of modular carpet tiles, Ray Anderson made one of the most massive reversals of attitude towards sustainability in history so far—he's one of the most memorable personalities in the popular documentary "The Corporation" because of his inspiring about-face.

After running Interface on a strictly business agenda for twenty years—one that included the regular dumping of tons of waste in landfills—he read Paul Hawkens' book The Ecology of Commerce while trying to prepare for a sustainability conference. It literally changed his life.

The thesis of the book is that businesses, more than anything else, are responsible for the future of the environment. Either they could profit by finding ways to renew resources, or they could destroy themselves along with the earth as they maintained a plunderer's attitude towards creating profits.

Shortly after, he vowed to move his company towards complete sustainability—no easy task for a billion-dollar-a-year factory based company. But by implementing intensive recycling programs, turning to energy-efficient computer controlled boilers, using corn to create carpet, and utilizing solar and wind power, Anderson has made some serious strides towards his goal. And the conserved energy and reused materials have helped Interface's profits rise.

Just as important, Anderson showed the business world that even an international, multi-billion dollar company can go green without dipping into the red.


Photo courtesy of Time

2. Sir Richard Branson


Thanks in part to his gasoline gorging Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson is one of the most famous billionaires in the world. So why would he say something like skyrocketing oil prices "are the best thing that has happened to this world"? Seems contradictory, sure. But it's never too late to come around.

Branson started the Virgin brand with a successful record label and built it into an empire that includes an international airline, cell phones, and even spacecraft. Yet he never seemed to show too much concern with the environment that his jets were spewing tons of emissions into.

That is, until he decided to initiate one of the largest biofuel investments in the world, under his Virgin Fuels division. Virgin Fuels has since morphed into the Virgin Green Fund, which currently has investments in companies working in biofuels, desalination plants, energy efficient lighting, and solar power.

Additionally, Branson's also launched an environmental consultancy in the UK, done humanitarian work with Nelson Mandela, invested $3 billion to fight global warming, and pioneered fuel efficient electric trains in Europe.

So what turned him around? A single breakfast with Al Gore. Seriously—Branson has said that he was a global warming skeptic before he sat down with Gore for a breakfast meeting.


3. Brad Hole


Brad Who? You probably wouldn't recognize Brad Hole if you saw him on the street—he's not a green celebrity CEO or an infamous international magnate. But it's worth including a lower-profile CEO who has nonetheless given up an unsustainable company to place running a green one as a top priority.

Brad Hole is the CEO of Sustainable Group, a fast-growing company that deals in recyclable home and office supplies. Before he ran Sustainable, he owned a barcode and data collection company called Eversio for 12 years. According to Hole, the "business wasn't green, nor were the products. We actually just brokered hardware and consumables and drop-shipped them to clients."

But five years ago, he and his business partner had an idea to create a binder out of recycled materials, noting how many PVC binders they sent to the landfill every year. So he created the Rebinder, and its strong sales blazed the trail for the environmentally conscious Sustainable Group. The company now has multiple product lines—and all are made from recycled materials—and is growing at a clip of 300 percent a year.

Hole recently sold the barcode business, and completed his 180 degree turn to green.


Photo courtesy of Time

4. Rupert Murdoch


I know you're thinking 'You've got to be fracking kidding me!' but there he is. One man you likely never expected to see TreeHugger congratulate: Rupert Murdoch, CEO of the global media goliath News Corp. He's probably best known for his news outlets: Fox News, the Star tabloid, and The New York Post, to name a few.

What makes him so unlikely for placement on any green CEO list is the fact (among other things) that most of his news outlets are notorious for being vocally skeptical about climate change. And that's putting it lightly.

Fox News especially has been renowned for giving credence to global warming denial, and one of his latest acquisitions, the Wall Street Journal still regularly runs op-eds calling climate change a hoax.

So how is it that Murdoch has made a public decision to make News Corp. carbon neutral by 2010, saying "Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats"?

Call it a change of heart, maybe. While he once admitted to being "somewhat wary of the warming debate" according to the Independent, now he's actively advocating environmental action. He's going to attempt to use his 'global reach' to encourage climate change action, he says. And he's already begun using recycled paper in some of his companies, and building sustainable studios.

However, the gap in ideologies between his news organizations and his personally stated beliefs continues to be an issue, since neither FOX nor the Wall Street Journal has yet adopted a productive view of climate change. And while there are certainly plenty more CEOs out there who've done more for the environment, perhaps no convert to the environmental movement was as unlikely and attention grabbing—and potentially inspiring to his peers.

Put it this way—it's one thing when the CEO of Google announces his new green initiative; it's something else when the owner of FOX News does.


Photo courtesy of the Independent

5. T. Boone Pickens


T. Boone Pickens of the infamous 'Pickens Plan' rounds out the last spot on our list. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Pickens is that his plan is birthed from pure capitalistic incentive—Pickens has stated on more than one occassion that his green motivation has more to do with money than the environment—and it's brought him through maybe the most dramatic 180 of any of these CEOs, at least in terms of business focus.

In the course of a few years, Pickens went from spending millions to fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their attacks on 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry and donating huge sums to George W. Bush himself, to soft peddling his Republican affiliation and spending time working on his energy plan with Democrats.

So that's a political 180, how about the environmental one? Well, he built his fortune as an oilman—growing Mesa, the company he founded, into one of the largest oil companies in the world. And he continued its growth through a series of acquisitions of other petroleum companies until last year, when he proclaimed that the United States had to become more energy independent, that peak oil was a reality, and he unveiled one of the now most hyped plans for developing alternative energy in the USA—the Pickens Plan. What?

Whether or not you agree with the plan's strategy, which is to curb reliance on foreign oil by developing wind power and using more natural gas, the massive publicity the plan has generated has brought wind power (and the general notion of widespread alternative energy usage) into a very public forum.

In the end even if the Pickens Plan doesn't come off exactly as planned, and considering some of Pickens' recent statements regarding slowing the project due to current world financial conditions, there is some doubt about that, the dialogue alone T. Boone's generated (especially coming from a wealthy, conservative oil baron) is noteworthy in itself.

More on Green CEOs:
Begrudgingly Green CEOs : TreeHugger
Solar CEO Ready for Next Challenge: The Eighth Grade : TreeHugger
CEOs of Twelve U.S. Airlines Don't Read IEA Reports, Blame High ...
10th Annual Global CEO Survey: Excerpts On Climate Change : TreeHugger

Tags: Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Economics | Green Jobs

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