Green Giants

Sure, we can all take shorter showers and adopt Meatless Mondays, but let's face it: Individual actions only go so far. (And if the Rio+20 summit showed us anything, it's that governments won't soon be advancing the environmental ball either.) So just who is making big strides when it comes to protecting the planet? This is our shout-out to you, corporate America.

Once upon a time, being an environmentalist meant you were firmly in the David camp, one of a ragtag crew of nonprofits, advocacy groups, and concerned citizens fighting against and usually losing out to the behemoth of big business. But increasingly these days, saving the planet is among the top agenda items of boardroom Goliaths. Corporate chiefs are waking up to the fact that preserving the environment isn't just good for their brand image; cutting energy costs, recycling, and conserving natural resources can actually improve business. Going green doesn't automatically turn a company into a corporate saint, of course — witness fallen energy giant Enron, which won a pile of environmental awards while quietly cooking the company books. And any business's bottom line is exactly that: profit, which comes from growth (and the ever-widening footprint that tends to go with it). But even if these players' tree-hugging turnarounds are all about self-preservation, we’re on board. Given the incredible reach of the powerhouses on these pages, just the tiniest step in the right direction by any one of them translates into a giant leap for the rest of us.

1. General Electric
The “Eureka!” moments haven’t stopped coming since the company that introduced the light bulb, X-ray, and jet engine launched its Ecomagination initiative back in 2005. The virtual think tank encourages innovation and practices that maximize environmental resources. Five years later, the annual Ecomagination Challenge was born, a $200 million competition that allows would-be entrepreneurs from more than 150 countries to submit ideas and then pairs the top contenders with corporate sponsors that help implement them. Winners have included a lightweight inflatable wind turbine and an intelligent water meter that generates its own power. GE has benefited as well, adding 34 of the new products and solutions to its own portfolio, and, oh, yeah, generating a cool $105 billion in the process.

2. SC Johnson
In 2001, the cleaning products manufacturer released a reformulated version of Windex glass cleaner that cut large quantities of VOCs -- volatile organic compounds (the stuff responsible for that "new car" smell) -- while actually boosting cleaning power by 30 percent. And earlier this year, in a move unprecedented in the industry, the company announced it would begin listing all ingredients on its product labels.

3. Estee Lauder
When the makeup giant bought Aveda in 1997, fans of the botanical brand worried that being gobbled up by a large corporation would dilute the company's mission of creating beauty products from plants, flowers, and other natural ingredients. But Estee Lauder has actually encouraged Aveda to go even greener, investing in its energy-efficiency projects and backing its mission to persuade suppliers to work with its highly specialized raw materials. Aveda has taught the rest of the family a thing or two as well, convincing all 27 of Estee Lauder’s other brands to use recycled and renewable feedstock for packaging and demanding that suppliers test packaging materials for heavy metals and other toxins. In 2008, Aveda rolled out the first bottle-cap collection program in the United States. To date, the company -- with the help of some 1,700 schools and other organizations -- has collected more than 900,000 pounds of plastic caps, recycled them for use in 17 of its products, and prevented approximately 102 million new caps from entering waterways and landfills everywhere.

4. The Home Depot
In 1994, the world's largest home-improvement retailer began selling wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and over the past decade it’s strengthened that mandate time and again, replacing mahogany supplies with domestically engineered wood, transferring 90 percent of its cedar purchases to second- and third-growth forests, and vowing not to purchase uncertified wood from the world’s 10 most vulnerable forest regions. Today, more than 90 percent of Home Depot's wood comes from certified sustainable companies -- and it’s labeled as such on the brand’s website, allowing shoppers of all stripes, from Rosie the Riveter to Bob the Builder, to know exactly what’s in their carts.

5. FedEx
In 2000, the express delivery company teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop hybrid trucks that would enhance fuel efficiency and reduce emissions without sacrificing performance. Today, FedEx operates one of the largest hybrid fleets in the industry -- its 408 vehicles have already covered a distance of 12 million miles and saved 345,000 gallons of fuel. Next up are this country’s first all-electric parcel delivery trucks, which have a 100-mile range and are already cruising in four major U.S. cities. They can handle eight hours’ worth of deliveries before needing to be recharged. (And drivers don’t have to check their watches to know when their shifts are up.)

6. Maersk Line
Stackable containers began revolutionizing shipping in the 1950s, but the vessels that transport them run on about the dirtiest oil there is, and the world’s freighter fleet is reportedly responsible for twice the emissions of the aviation sector. Maersk’s response? Slow down and bulk up. Slow steaming allows lower-priority shipments to move 20 percent more gradually, reducing fuel use and CO2 emissions by 10 percent. And by using larger vessels with smaller engines capable of recapturing waste heat, Maersk is able to carry at least 16 percent more containers than it did on previous ships, while producing 50 percent less CO2 per container than the industry average.

7. Ford Motor Company
Between insurance, wear and tear, and the exorbitant price of gas, you could almost say that cars burn money. But in Ford’s case, you might soon be sitting on that cash -- literally. Paper currency (retired notes only, of course), dandelions, and coconuts are among the materials the company is considering in its search for earth-friendly production supplies, part of its pledge to cut greenhouse gases per vehicle by 30 percent by 2025.

8. Hasbro, Inc
In 2011, America’s titan toy maker replaced the non-recyclable wire ties used in its packaging -- 34,000 miles’ worth -- with versions made from paper rattan or a bamboo mix. That’s enough to wrap around the Earth’s circumference more than once -- or, to put it another way, enough to braid into the manes of jillions of My Little Ponies or bedeck zillions of light sabers.

9. Procter & Gamble
In 2010, the world’s largest packaged- goods company -- maker of such household names as Charmin, Pampers, and Tide -- introduced a scorecard to improve the environmental sustainability of its business partners and suppliers. And recently, it has been working with support from the World Wildlife Fund to make plastic from plants rather than petroleum. The company has also started to streamline product packaging -- here’s the play-by-play on how one razor case got a green makeover:

  • In 2010, Gillette executives lunching at a Whole Foods in Boston admire the eco-friendly food packaging and wonder if it might be applicable to their own products. They ask a manager for the name of the manufacturer. 
  • P&G telephones Santa Barbara–based Be Green Packaging, a 3-year-old company with a tiny staff. The person at the other end of the line assumes the call is a random solicitation and quickly hangs up. 
  • P&G eventually hires Be Green to work its organic design magic on the plastic packaging for a new razor, the Fusion ProGlide, to be released in the European market. 
  • Eight months and four design attempts later, the new package (featuring bulrush, bamboo, and 100 percent recyclable PET plastic) debuts stateside, reducing -- or would that be shaving? -- the product’s overall plastic by 57 percent. 
  • In 2012, P&G hires Be Green to design packaging for other company products -- soon to be unveiled.

10. Tiffany & Co
That iconic eggshell blue? It’s actually green. America’s beloved jeweler uses packaging materials certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, maintains a zero tolerance policy on conflict diamonds, and has been vocal in its opposition to mine proposals -- including Pebble Mine, near Alaska’s Bristol Bay -- that it believes constitute a threat to wildlife and natural resources.

11. Chiquita
By instituting a major (banana) split from the United Fruit Company, its corporate predecessor, Chiquita pulled off one of the great American brand-image makeovers. See Chiquita Then and Now

12. Unilever
Talk about one-stop shopping. Unilever makes so many household products that someone, somewhere in the world, reaches for one of them -- a jar of Hellmann’s, a bar of Dove, a box of Surf detergent -- 2 billion times a day. By 2020, the company plans to source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably, chief among them palm oil, now present in roughly half the goods on supermarket shelves and a hot-button issue for the havoc it wreaks on natural habitats, particularly that of the orangutan. The world’s single largest consumer of palm oil (the company uses 1.4 million tons of the oil and its derivatives each year), Unilever has pledged to get all of its supply from sources traceable to certified plantations within the next eight years.

13. Pepsico and Coca-Cola
They may be the Montagues and Capulets of the beverage industry, but these rivals do agree on the importance of collaborating with environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy to preserve and replenish the world’s water supply. They’ve both invested in community watershed projects, helped to ensure access to safe water across the developing world, and restored and improved water supplies in areas where they have manufacturing plants. Self-preservation? No doubt (after all, no water = no soda), but we’ll take it all the same. The two soda superpowers also see eye to eye when it comes to combating citrus disease, but the gloves are off in their competition to market the first 100 percent plant-based bottle.

14. McDonalds
Back in 1990, when the Environmental Defense Fund announced that it would start working with McDonald’s, it was the shot heard round the rain forest. At the time, no environmental group had ever partnered with a Fortune 500 company, and the fast-food chain, then the target of the activist-driven Ronald McToxic Campaign, seemed the unlikeliest of candidates. The following year, McDonald’s began replacing its polystyrene foam clamshells with paper wraps and recycled boxes; switching from bleached to unbleached carryout bags; and reducing the amount of material used in its straws, napkins, sandwich packaging, cups, and french-fry containers. By 1999, it had eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging from its operations. Some other notable Mickey D's milestones over the decades:

1991: Introduces the "healthier" McLean Deluxe burger (bun, lettuce, tomato, condiments, and lean beef); the burger flops.

1993: Begins offering giant Dino size french fries and soda in honor of the newly released "Jurassic Park."

1995: Teaming up with the National Wildlife Federation, introduces the nature-themed Amazing Wildlife Happy Meal (sample toys: Galapagos tortoise and Asiatic lion).

2001: Partners with Conservation International to ensure that all of its fish is sourced from sustainable fisheries.

2004: Discontinues Super Size items following the release of the documentary "Super Size Me."

2010: Together with the World Wildlife Fund, serves as a leading cosponsor of the Global Conference for Sustainable Beef -- launching efforts later joined by the National Wildlife Federation, Rainforest Alliance, and Nature Conservancy.

2011: Adds fresh apple slices to all Happy Meals in the U.S.

2012: Requires all of its pork suppliers to phase out gestation crates for pregnant sows.

15. Starbucks
The company that changed the way the world drinks its morning joe is turning its attention to the thing we drink it from. The goal? To make all four billion cups used each year recyclable or reusable by 2015. In rising to the challenge, Starbucks has to be everywhere at once (imagine that!) -- rolling out recycling programs in company-owned and-operated stores; collaborating with municipal agencies to improve recycling infrastructures; and holding brainstorming "cup summits." If anyone can ensure that a recyclable cup runneth over,these guys can. Venti, please!

16. Nike
This global sneaker company now addresses sustainability at both ends of the product life cycle. Its Flyknit shoe is manufactured in one piece (reducing waste) and replaces the materials found in traditional models with specially engineered, lightweight yarns and fabrics. At the other end of the chain, the company has recycled 25 million shoes and counting into a material called “Nike Grind,” which is used in everything from running tracks and playgrounds to ... new Nike products. At this karmic rate (assuming the company doesn’t drop the ball on labor issues), how long can it be before the swoosh ascends to Nirvana? See How Nike Reycles Shoes

17. Puma
Profit-and-loss statements aren’t usually as controversial as Pele saucily engineering a televised close-up of his untied Puma shoelaces at the 1970 World Cup. But that was before the sneaker company unveiled its Environmental Profit and Loss statement in 2010, a trailblazing attempt to put a monetary value on natural-resource usage. By monitoring land use, air pollution, waste, greenhouse-gas emissions,and water consumption during production, Puma was able to assess where small changes would have the greatest effect. (Answer: raw materials like cotton and leather.) The new Re-Suede shoe eschews leather in favor of 100 percent recycled polyester fibers, mostly from recycled plastic bottles. And really, how can you not give some credit to a company that outs itself as environmentally in the red? (In its initial report, Puma estimated it “owed” the natural world $185 million.)

18. Levi's
We think of jeans as being effortlessly cool, just like the Jameses (Dean, Taylor, Franco) who wear them, but manufacturing the average pair is a remarkably resource-intensive process, requiring anywhere from 3 to 10 washing cycles that can use a whopping 42 liters of water. The new Levi’s “Water<Less” method has enabled the company to cut its water usage in some styles by as much as 96 percent, with overall savings from 2011’s initial 1.5 million pairs of denim totaling 16 million liters. That’s more than 726 million 8-ounce glasses, enough to slake the thirst of the population of Eugene, Oregon, for an entire year. (Though not quite in the way "Rebel Without a Cause" does.)

The Visionaries
Most corporate environmentalists are recent converts to the church of Mother Earth, but a select few were always true believers -- big-picture thinkers who knew that doing good and doing well didn’t have to be incompatible. While some have retired, sold their companies, or passed on, they’ve all earned a green star in our hall of fame.

Tom and Kate Chappell, Tom’s of Maine: In 1968, the Chappell family moved to rural Maine in search of a simpler life. Unable to find a toothpaste or deodorant they liked, they got a $5,000 loan and made their own.

Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia: At the age of 18, this avid climber decided to make his own reusable climbing gear. By 1970, his company was the largest supplier of it in the U.S., and his earth-friendly wares have now changed the face (fleece?) of outdoor wear forever.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's: The childhood friends split the cost of a $5 ice-cream-making correspondence course before opening their first parlor in Burlington, Vermont, vowing to have fun while doing good. The rest, as they say, is Chubby Hubby history.

Steve Ells, Chipotle Mexican GrillSince the former chef opened his first burrito joint back in 1993, his efforts to source ingredients naturally, sustainably, and ethically have been changing the fast-food game.

Gary Rricks, Clif Bar: Nearly finished with a 175-mile bike ride in 1990, Erickson was starving -- but couldn’t bear to take another bite of the energy bars he’d packed. “I could make something better than this!” he thought -- and he did.

Drew and Myra Goodman, Earthbound FarmThe New York transplants started out growing raspberries in their 2.5-acre garden in central California and went on to create a prewashed-greens empire that keeps grocery stores everywhere in a supply of organic produce.

Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Organic: As the company’s yogurts gained a cultlike following, Stonyfield spread the green gospel by donating millions in profits to the environment and cutting waste by 80 percent -- keeping hundreds of organic farmers in business along the way.

Grant Lundberg, Lundberg Family Farms: Grandson of one of the original cofounders, Lundberg oversees more than 16,000 California acres of organic rice fields that produce a range of rice cakes, risottos, and syrups. Eight of the nine board members who oversee his work are his own relatives.

John Mackey, Whole Foods Market: In 1978, Mackey borrowed $45,000 to open a store in a Victorian house in Austin, Texas. Two years later, the first Whole Foods opened, and an empire --  300 stores and counting in which to spend that whole paycheck -- was born.

Bob Moore, Bob’s Red Mill: After stumbling on a book about stone-grinding, Moore taught himself the art of milling, and 34 years later, his Oregon outfit is still grinding out natural and heritage flours. On his 81st birthday, Moore transferred ownership of the company to his stunned employees.

Michael Potter, Eden Foods: As the sole owner of one of the country’s last remaining independent organic food manufacturers and an official adviser to the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Potter is center stage in the fight to uphold organic standards.

Roxanne Quimby and Burt Shavitz, Burt’s Bees: Twenty-eight years and 150-plus products after Mainers Quimby and Shavitz set up shop in a schoolhouse, the company they founded remains dedicated to natural ingredients, recycled packaging, and social good.

Anita Roddick, The Body Shop: Soon after the young mother of two began sourcing botanical ingredients from habitats the world over, she became an avid environmentalist. Roddick died in 2007, but not before advocating vocally for banning cosmetics testing on animals, recycling packaging, and defending the rights of indigenous peoples.

George Siemon, Organic Valley: In 1988, Siemon joined a group of family farmers in Wisconsin to form what is now the largest organic cooperative in North America. It has managed to reach $715 million in annual sales while keeping its focus on local farmers, pasture-bred livestock, and the simple pleasure of a cold glass of milk.

Annie Withey, Annie’s: A little kitchen tinkering back in 1989 led to mac-and-cheese (and Cheddar Bunnies, and pizzas ...) that’s still keeping health- and planet-conscious parents (and, obviously, their kids) everywhere happy.

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