Sustainability has become a far-reaching field, covering a range of environmental and social issues. In addition to climate change, visionaries are speaking out on energy security, green architecture, indigenous rights and much, much more. What exactly are leaders in sustainability doing to change the world? Read our profiles of 21 thought leaders in sustainability to learn how they’re making a difference — and how they told us they envision sustainability working to create a better future.
Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians, the largest citizens’ advocacy organization in the country. She is also the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project; board member of the International Forum on Globalization; and councilor for the World Future Council.From 2008-2009, Barlow served as the Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly. In 2011, she received the EarthCare Award, the highest international honor of the Sierra Club.
Concerns: Water rights, climate change, globalization.
Mike Boots is Acting Chair for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. During his time with the Administration, he has helped coordinate work on Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the development of a National Ocean Policy and a federal sustainability initiative to reduce energy use and pollution across the federal government.
Concerns: Climate change, ocean conservation, energy security.
David Cook is the former CEO of The Natural Step International, and currently serves as an executive ambassador at that organization. Cook works with a wide variety of international corporations and organizations, helping them adapt to the realities of sustainable development. Cook is a former Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an occasional adviser to the World Economic Forum Global Advisory Council and a member of the Sustainability External Advisory Committee of The Dow Chemical Company.
Concerns: Sustainable development, corporate responsibility.
Selected Books: The Natural Step: Towards a Sustainable Society (2005).
Quote: “For the future, we need a new way of thinking about economics which emphasizes development over growth, quality over quantity and longer term over short term. We need business to thrive upon development and innovation, without the kind of social and environmental damage we have seen in the past, and we need that urgently.”
Thais Corral is the co-founder of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and the current director of the Rede de Desenvolvimento Humano (REDEH) and Communication, Education and Information on Gender (CEMINA), both in Brazil. In 2001, the Brazilian National Council of Women named her “Woman of the Year. “In addition to being a councilor for the World Future Council, Corral coordinates the Adapta Sertao Project, an adaptive response to climate change in semiarid regions. This project was granted the 2008 SEED award for its community-led approach to water-efficient crop irrigation.
Concerns: Sustainable development, climate change, social entrepreneurship.
Selected Books: Leadership is Global: Co-Creating a More Humane and Sustainable World by Walter Link, Thais Corral and Mark Gerzon (2006).
Aron Cramer is the president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a global nonprofit business network dedicated to sustainability. Prior to assuming his current role, he served as the founding director of the BSR’s business and human rights program and opened the organization’s Paris office. As part of his duties, Cramer provides advice and counsel to the BSR’s 250-plus member companies and speaks frequently on sustainability at major events and through media outlets.
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable business.
Selected Books: Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell (2010).
Quote: “The key challenge in the 21st century is how to create a world that enables prosperous, dignified lives for a planet with 9 billion people, within planetary boundaries. For business, this represents a great opportunity, though business as usual approaches won’t get the job done.”
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher is Director General of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority. During the 1999-2000 negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol, he was the spokesperson for a large number of the G77 countries (the Like-Minded Group), arguing for biosafety, biodiversity and respect of the rights of local communities. Egziabher was honored with the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 and received the UN’s top environmental prize, Champion of the Earth, in 2006. He is currently a councilor of the World Future Council.
Concerns: Human rights, biodiversity, sustainable development.
Selected Books: Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies (Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestos) (contributor, 2008).
Widely considered to be one of the world’s top sustainability speakers, John Elkington is the co-founder of both SustainAbility and Volans, where he now serves as executive chairman. He is the creator of Environmental Data Services (ENDS), a regular contributor to Fast Company and other media and a weekly columnist for the Guardian Sustainable Business website. Elkington coined the term, “Triple Bottom Line,” a key concept in corporate sustainability. In 2011, he was awarded the Spencer Hutchens, Jr. Medal by the American Society for Quality (ASQ). In 2013, he was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP).
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable development, social entrepreneurship.
Selected Books: The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan (2008); Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (1998); Green Consumer Guide by Joel Makower, John Elkington and Julia Hailes (1988).
Paul Gilding is the former executive director of Greenpeace International and a current Climate & Business Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. In 2012, Gilding delivered a popular TED talk entitled The Earth is Full, which argues that exponential economic growth has led to overconsumption and waste.
Concerns: Climate change, corporate responsibility.
Selected Books: The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Change EVERYTHING (For the Better) (2011).
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, best-selling author and founder of the Natural Capital Institute. Hawken has created several businesses, including some of the first natural food companies in the U.S. that relied solely on sustainable agricultural methods. In 2009, he founded OneSun, an energy company focused on low-cost solar energy based on green chemistry and biomimicry, and currently serves as head of this company. In addition to appearing regularly on international media, Hawken has served on the board of numerous environmental organizations, including Point Foundation, Conservation International and the National Audubon Society. He frequently consults with heads of state and CEOs on economic development, industrial ecology and environmental policy. In 2003, he was awarded the Green Cross Millennium Award for International Environmental Leadership.
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable development, energy security.
Selected Books: Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (2007); Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1999); The Ecology of Commerce (1993); Growing a Business (1987).
Quote: “I would caution sustainability students not to be ‘rectangle’ experts, deriving their knowledge only from computers and online sources. If students are to be effective and truly knowledgeable in the 21st century, they need to explore the outdoors and discover the world.”
Ashok Khosla is the founder of the Development Alternatives, president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and co-chair of the UN’s International Resource Panel. He was the Founding Director of India’s Office of Environmental Planning and Coordination, the first agency of its kind in a developing nation, and has served on the board of a number of environmental organizations including the Club of Rome, World Conservation Union and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. As a councilor for the World Future Council and Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Khosla is frequently sought as a conference speaker. In 2002, he received the UN’s 2002 Sasakawa Environment Prize, and in 2011, he was awarded the WWF’s Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal.
Concerns: Sustainable development, social entrepreneurship.
Ernst Ligteringen is the CEO of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an international organization committed to making sustainability reporting a standard practice. Ligteringen has also held senior positions at Oxfam International and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Ligteringen is an active member of many organizations, including the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of Business, the international advisory board of the ETHOS Institute of Brazil, the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable development.
Eric Lowitt is an environmental consultant, author and journalist. He led the development of Accenture’s first sustainability research program and served as a Sustainability Specialist Master for Deloitte Consulting. In both 2012 and 2013, Lowitt was named one of the “Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior” by Trust Across America. His articles regularly appear in publications such as the Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable development.
Selected Books: The Collaboration Economy: How to Meet Business, Social, and Environmental Needs and Gain Competitive Advantage (2013); The Future of Value: How Sustainability Creates Value Through Competitive Differentiation (2011).
Mindy Lubber is a founding board member and the president of Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership. She directs Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) and helps coordinate Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP). In addition to receiving the Skoll Social Entrepreneur Award in 2006, Lubber was honored in 2010 as one of the “World’s Top Leaders of Change” by the United Nations and the Foundation for Social Change. She was also voted one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Corporate Governance” by Directorship Magazine in 2011.
Concerns: Climate change, corporate responsibility, sustainable development, energy security.
Helio Mattar is the president and co-founder of the Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption, a nonprofit with a mission to educate and mobilize society for conscious consumption. An engineer by training, he holds a doctorate in industrial engineering from Stanford University. Mattar co-founded several NGOs, including the Ethos Institute for Business and Social Responsibility, an association of companies practicing socially responsible activities. He has has also served as a government minister and as a CEO, in positions such as Secretary for National Production in the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade and president of GE Appliances in Brazil.
Concerns: Corporate responsibility, sustainable development, consumer awareness.
William McDonough is a globally recognized designer, thought leader and sustainable development pioneer. For more than 40 years, he has defined the principles of the sustainability movement through his companies McDonough Innovation, William McDonough + Partners and MBDC, as well as through the nonprofits he has co-founded, including the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Make It Right. McDonough is co-creator of the Cradle to Cradle framework for design and the related Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program, a global standard for the design of safe, healthy products. Time magazine named McDonough a “Hero for the Planet” in 1999, stating that his “utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that — in demonstrable and practical ways — is changing the design of the world.” He has also received many other honors, including the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in 1996 and the Smithsonian’s National Design Award in 2004 for outstanding achievement in environmental design.
Concerns: Sustainable development, green architecture.
Selected Books: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, with a foreword by Bill Clinton (2013); Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough (2002); The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability (1992).
Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland (1990-1997) and current president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. From 1997 to 2002, she served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and, from 2002 to 2010, she spearheaded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, an organization with a mission to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage. In March 2013, she became the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General to the Great Lakes region of Africa. Robinson is a member of the Elders and the Club of Madrid, has received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States, Barack Obama. In addition to being a board member of several organizations, including the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the European Climate Foundation, she is a member of the Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement and serves as Patron of the Board of the Institute of Human Rights and Business.
Concerns: Climate change, human rights.
Selected Books: Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice (2013).
Quote: “I believe that the next 20 years will need to see a radical shift in our thinking on energy if we are serious about tackling the issues of sustainability and climate change. It is essential that equitable ways are found to limit the carbon we emit, so that we can reduce inequality while creating inclusive sustainable development. Such measures require transformational leadership and a climate justice approach, recognizing the all too disproportionate impacts of global warming on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — those who have done least to cause the climate crisis.”
Joseph Romm is a physicist, journalist, author and expert on climate change. In 1997, he was the acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Romm is currently the Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the founding editor of the climate blog Climate Progress.In 2009, Rolling Stone named Romm one of the “100 People Who Are Changing America.” In the same year, Time magazine called him “the web’s most influential climate-change blogger.” He frequently testifies before Congress on global warming issues.
Concerns: Climate change, energy security, green technologies.
Selected Books: Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions (2010); Hell and High Water: Global Warming — the Solution and the Politics — and What We Should Do (2006); The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate (2004).
Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist, anti-globalization advocate, author and founder of the Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India. In addition, she is a board member of the International Forum on Globalization and a member of the International Organization for a Participatory Society. Shiva is particularly concerned with biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and the detrimental effects of globalization. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 1993 and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2010. In 2003, Time magazine recognized her as an environmental hero.
Concerns: Climate change, globalization, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture.
Selected Books: Making Peace With The Earth (2013); Water Wars; Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (2002); Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (2000); Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Agriculture (1993).
Philippe Van Parijs
Philippe Van Parijs is a libertarian political economist and directs the Hoover Chair of economics and social ethics at the University of Louvain in Belgium, where he is a professor. He is the co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) and chairs the steering committee of the program on Poverty and Social Justice of the King Baudouin Foundation. Van Parijs is a proponent of basic income, a system of universal social security and sustainable living. In 2001, he was granted the Francqui Prize, a prestigious annual prize awarded to a Belgian scholar or scientist.
Concerns: Sustainable living, consumer awareness, human rights.
Selected Books: Just Democracy: The Rawls and Machiavelli Programme (2011); Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (2011); Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (1995).
Anders Wijkman serves as vice president of the Club of Rome and as a councilor for the World Future Council. He is the former president of Globe EU as well as the former UN assistant secretary-general. During his time as a member of the European Parliament, he tackled climate change, development cooperation and humanitarian issues. In 2009, Wijkman received the Special Award for Sustainable Energy from the European Renewable Energy Federation (EREF) in recognition of his efforts to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency within the EU.
Concerns: Climate change, sustainable development, human rights, renewable energy.
Selected Books: Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstrom (2012).
Jianyu Zhang is the managing director of the China Program of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and serves on the Lead Expert Group for the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development. He co-founded of the first environmental consulting firm in China. In addition to being a regular editorial contributor to China Daily, Zhang is an executive board director of the China Association of NGO Cooperation (CANGO) and a member of the Lead Expert Group (LEG) for the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED).
Concerns: Climate change, corporate responsibility, energy security.