Sustainability leaders understand that sustainability is not just a buzzword; it’s a fundamental approach to business and everyday life in a way that benefits all.
But what exactly is a sustainable leader? How would you define this model citizen?
To us, a sustainability leader is an individual that demonstrates a strong commitment and proactive approach to implementing sustainable practices, promoting sustainability awareness and education, and leading by example.
And someone can achieve that distinction through vastly different approaches across any industry.
Here you’ll find a cross-section of those individuals, experts and ultimately sustainable leaders in their respective fields—from sustainable business leaders to those who are out on the streets inspiring others to take up the mantle of environmental responsibility alongside them.
Exploring Leaders In Sustainability
Leaders In Environmental Sustainability
1. Dr. Robert D. Bullard
One of the world’s most respected Black leaders in sustainability, Dr. Robert D. Bullard is an American scholar, activist, and author who is widely regarded as the “father of environmental justice”.
His activism began in the 1970s, when he began researching and campaigning against the placement of hazardous waste sites in African American communities in Houston, Texas. These efforts were groundbreaking in establishing the link between systemic racism and environmental oppression.
Over four decades, he’s published over 18 books, served on environmental advisory boards (such as the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council which advises the US Environmental Protection Agency), and won numerous awards, including the UNEP’s 2020 Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award.
2. Greta Thunberg
What do you get when you cross a young environmentalist, sustainable development goals, and a lot of passion for the planet?
One of the most famous sustainability leaders, despite her young age, Thunberg began her eco-warrior career by skipping school to protest outside the Swedish parliament, calling for more ambitious action to address climate change.
Since then, she’s become a prominent spokesperson for the youth-led climate movement and has addressed numerous international conferences and events, including the United Nations Climate Action Summit and the World Economic Forum.
She’s also been involved in several high-profile climate strikes and protests, inspiring millions of young people around the world to take action and already earning herself a TIME Person of the Year award in 2019.
While her list of achievements may not (yet) be as long as others on this list, her passion and young age is key in inspiring future sustainability leaders with a simple message: you don’t have to be old, famous or already accomplished to give voice to the planet.
3. Sir David Attenborough
On the other end of the age spectrum, there’s Sir David Attenborough. At 96 years old, this iconic English broadcaster and naturalist is still making waves in the eco activism community and was appointed a UN Messenger of Peace in 2019.
Through his work as a television presenter and documentary filmmaker—most notably the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series—he’s brought attention to a wide range of environmental issues, including climate change, deforestation, plastic pollution, species extinction, and overall impacts of human activity on the natural world.
Attenborough has also been involved in various environmental campaigns and initiatives, and used his public platform to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues, calling on sustainable leaders to take action to protect the planet’s natural resources and ecosystems.
4. Jane Burston
Recognized as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Europe in 2018, Jane Burston is a British climate scientist and founder and executive director of the Clean Air Fund. This nonprofit organization provides funding and support to organizations working to address air pollution in low- and middle-income countries.
Prior to her work with the Clean Air Fund, Burston worked as the head of climate and environment at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and as the director of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory.
She has also served as a scientific advisor to the UK government on issues related to climate change and air pollution.
5. Majora Carter
As a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient, Majora Carter is one of the foremost Black sustainability leaders and voices for sustainable urban development and social justice in underprivileged communities.
As an American urban revitalization strategist and real estate development consultant, her area of expertise is the intersection of environmental, social, and economic issues in marginalized communities.
Her work has cemented her as a leader in the development of green infrastructure (including parks, greenways, and green roofs) and promotion of clean energy and sustainable transportation.
She’s also the founder of the non-profit Sustainable South Bronx, which focuses on creating green jobs, promoting environmental education, and improving public health outcomes in NYC’s South Bronx.
6. Christiana Figueres
A University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership alumni and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres is no stranger to environmental policymaking.
In fact, she led the negotiations that resulted in the historic Paris Agreement in 2015.
Figueres has won numerous awards for activism and held leadership positions with major environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the Carbon War Room, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
7. Nina Jensen
Nina Jensen is a Norwegian environmentalist and marine biologist who has worked in various positions related to conservation and sustainability. She is currently the CEO of REV Ocean, a non-profit focused on ocean research and conservation.
Prior to joining REV Ocean, Jensen served as the Secretary General of WWF Norway, where she worked on campaigns to protect Norway’s forests, promote sustainable seafood practices, and develop a national strategy for biodiversity conservation.
As CEO of REV Ocean, Jensen is leading efforts to develop new technologies (including the world’s largest, most advanced research and expedition vessel) and solutions to address some of the most pressing environmental challenges facing the world’s oceans.
8. Mina Guli
A former corporate lawyer turned ultra-marathon runner, Mina Guli is an Australian athlete and activist.
During a 7-week, 40-marathon challenge to raise awareness about the world’s water crisis, she suffered a stress fracture in her femur, which led her to start the Thirst Foundation, a non-profit organization raising Awareness about the global water crisis and inspiring action to address it.
Thirst works to engage individuals, communities, and businesses in water conservation efforts and to promote sustainable water practices. The organization has launched several campaigns, including #RunningDry, a global awareness and fundraising campaign that Guli undertook in 2018, running 100 marathons in 100 days to highlight the water crisis.
In 2022-2023, she surpassed that goal by completing the World Water Run, completing an astounding 200 marathons in one year in support of the UN Water Conference.
Guli is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security, advisor to the Chinese Government’s sustainability program, board member for the Global Water Partnership, and a member of the Antarctic Science Foundation.
World Leaders In Sustainability
9. Angela Merkel
One of the longest standing global leaders in sustainability, former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel was a picture-perfect example of what leadership for sustainability should look like.
Serving Germany from 2005-2021, she oversaw Germany’s transition to renewable energy and pledged to phase out both coal-fired and nuclear power plants. In 2019, the German government announced a plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Merkel has also been an active participant in international climate negotiations, including the United Nations Climate Change Conferences. In 2015, she played a crucial role in brokering the Paris Agreement.
For her climate conscious efforts, Merkel has received numerous awards and accolades, including the UN’s Champions of the Earth award and TIME magazine’s Person of the Year award in 2015.
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10. Emmanuel Macron
Serving as the President of France since 2017, Emmanuel Macron is an outspoken advocate for climate action, both domestically and internationally, having described “climate change as the biggest issue we are facing”.
Macron has introduced a number of measures aimed at reducing France’s greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy, including a new climate plan to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power and increase domestic renewable energy generation to 40% by 2030. He’s also been a leading voice in international climate negotiations and a vocal supporter of the Paris Agreement.
He’s also a champion of biodiversity protection through legal protection of wild regions in France and his revolutionary concept of biodiversity credits (in the same vein as climate credits) was introduced at COP27.
For his environmental leadership, Macron has received numerous awards and accolades, including the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award and the Global Citizen Award for World Leader.
11. Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India since 2014, has launched a number of initiatives aimed at reducing India’s greenhouse gas emissions 33-35% by 2030 through ambitious renewable energy targets.
A leading voice in international climate negotiations, Modi emphasizes the need for developed countries to take responsibility for their historical greenhouse gas emissions and has called for increased support for developing countries to help them address climate change.
In 2015, he launched the International Solar Alliance, a coalition of countries working together to promote the use of solar energy.
Modi’s actions have earned him the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award and the Seoul Peace Prize.
Sustainable Fashion Leaders
12. Diana Verde Nieto
Positive Luxury is a digital platform that provides information and certification for luxury brands that meet certain sustainability criteria, such as ethical sourcing, responsible production, and environmental stewardship.
Nieto co-founded the platform in 2011 with the goal of creating a more sustainable and responsible luxury industry.
The platform provides information about a brand’s sustainability practices and certifications, and promotes sustainable brands through its “Butterfly Mark” certification program.
Nieto’s work in promoting responsible production, industry transparency, and consumer empowerment has earned her numerous awards and honors, including being named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum and a “Green Game Changer” by the Financial Times.
13. Hannah Jones
Who are the leaders in sustainable fashion?
Considering Nike is the world’s largest athletic apparel company, former Nike Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and Vice President of Innovation Accelerator Hannah Jones certainly makes the list.
During her 16-year tenure in the role, Jones was responsible for driving Nike’s sustainability strategy and overseeing the company’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact and promote ethical labor practices.
While Nike’s sustainability is still imperfect, they made huge strides during Jones’ tenure, including achieving its goal of sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewable sources and creating innovative products and materials using sustainable and recycled materials.
Having stepped down from her role in Nike, this Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business award recipient has taken on the role of being the first CEO of The Earthshot Prize, which seeks to highlight and support the work of other sustainable leaders around the globe.
14. Yvon Chouinard
Yvon Chouinard is an American businessman, environmentalist, and founder of the monolithic outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia.
Though he began his corporate journey as an “existential dirtbag” climber making climbing gear in his backyard, he’s now the recipient of the Outdoor Industry Association (OAI)’s Lifetime Achievement Award—and for good reason.
Throughout his career, Chouinard has been a vocal critic of the negative environmental impacts of industrialization, while working to promote sustainable practices in business and the outdoor industry—including being instrumental in reducing the environmental impact of Patagonia’s products.
In 1985, Chouinard co-founded 1% for the Planet, an organization that encourages businesses to donate 1% of their profits to environmental causes.
He’s also penned several books on what it means to be a corporate sustainability leader and serves on the Board of Directors of the Conservation Alliance and its essential work in preserving America’s public lands,
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Sustainable Food Leaders
15. Dr. Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist, and food sovereignty advocate who has become the “world’s most powerful opponent of Monsanto”.
Through her work, Dr. Shiva has helped to raise awareness about the importance of sustainable agriculture, the need to protect biodiversity, and the ways in which corporate control of the food system can harm local communities and the environment.
She has also been involved in a number of campaigns to promote environmental and social justice, including efforts to protect indigenous peoples’ rights and to challenge corporate control of the food system.
Dr. Shiva is the author of several books, subject of the documentary The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable agriculture and preserving biodiversity.
16. Alice Waters
Alice Waters is an American chef and advocate for sustainable and organic food practices, cementing herself as a leader in the farm-to-table movement.
Her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, has been serving local, organic food for over 50 years—long before that was standard in California.
Waters is also the founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, an organization that promotes the integration of organic gardens and food education into school curriculums across the United States.
The goal of the Edible Schoolyard Project is to provide children with hands-on experience in growing and cooking their own food, while also teaching them about the benefits of healthy eating and sustainable agriculture.
17. Nell Newman
You may have heard of actor Paul Newman, but among sustainable food leaders, his daughter Nell Newman is just as famous.
She’s the founder and president of Newman’s Own Organics, a company that has been producing organic foods and beverages in a GMO saturated US food market since 1993.
By focusing on sustainable ingredient sourcing and environmental stewardship long before there was demand for it, Newman’s Own Organics set the stage for more sustainable food brands to follow.
Nell Newman herself has been involved in various environmental organizations and causes, including directing several sustainability documentaries and serving as a board member of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. and.
She also co-founded the Nell Newman Foundation which supports organizations promoting sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and other environmental initiatives.
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18. Ron Finley
Known as the “gangsta gardener”, Ron Finley is a food justice activist and founder of the Ron Finley Project, which promotes urban gardening and healthy eating in underserved communities.
He joined several other Black sustainability leaders in advocating for access to fresh, healthy food for all.
In 2010, he started planting fruits and vegetables in a strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in front of his home, a food desert at the time. This act inspired others in his community to start planting their own gardens, and eventually led to the creation of the Ron Finley Project, a non-profit organization that transforms unused land into community gardens and urban farms.
Finley is also an artist responsible for creating a series of murals throughout Los Angeles that promote healthy eating and sustainable living.
19. Jerry Lynch
If there’s anywhere the world needs sustainable food leaders, it’s at the helm of major multinational food corporations.
Enter Jerry Lynch, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) at General Mills, one of the largest food companies in the world. Since 1995, he’s been responsible for leading the company’s global sustainability efforts, including its goal to reduce its environmental footprint and to promote sustainable sourcing of ingredients through regenerative agriculture.
Thanks to Lynch’s leadership, General Mills was included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
Lynch is also on the board of the Sustainable Food Lab, a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI Platform) Executive Committee, and has worked at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the course of his 25 years environmental career.
20. David Rosenberg
A vocal advocate for sustainable agriculture, David Rosenberg is co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms, a company specializing in sustainable agriculture solutions to address the challenges of traditional farming, such as limited space, water scarcity, and high energy consumption.
A Certified B Corp specifically built to address 12 of the 17 UN SDGs for businesses, AeroFarms utilizes the latest in sustainable smart technology and vertical farming techniques to grow crops indoors, using significantly less water and energy than traditional farming methods.
Rosenberg’s company has become a leading player in the vertical farming industry, with multiple indoor farms located throughout the US and a growing number of partnerships with grocery stores and restaurants.
It’s received numerous awards for its innovative approach to food production, including being named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company.
Corporate Sustainability Leaders
21. Samuel Alemayehu
Samuel Alemayehu is an Ethiopian “serial entrepreneur”, angel investor, and sustainability activist committed to promoting green and sustainable development in Africa through the likes of sustainable banks and investment.
His leadership for sustainability began in college when he launched two companies from his dorm room, and he continued to prove to be one of the world’s most forward-thinking sustainable business leaders.
As founder and managing partner of Cambridge Industries Ltd, an Ethiopian-based company that invests in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, low-carbon forms of transportation, and other environmentally friendly initiatives to drive positive change in Ethiopia and across the African continent.
Alemayehu is also the founder of the African Bamboo, an organization that promotes the use of bamboo as a sustainable building material and a means of promoting economic development in Africa, and KIVU Bio, a company that makes materials from C1 greenhouse gasses.
Alemayehu is also an advocate for sustainable transportation, and has been involved in projects to promote the use of electric vehicles and other low-carbon forms of transportation in Africa.
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22. Ellen MacArthur
A leading voice in the movement to create a circular economic model, Ellen MacArthur is a British former professional sailor and founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
In 2005, MacArthur set a world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. During her time at sea, MacArthur became acutely aware of the finite resources of the planet and the need for a more sustainable way of living, inspiring her to start the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010.
This non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting the circular economy—one that is restorative and regenerative by design—across a range of sectors. It’s become a leading voice in the sustainability movement, working with governments, businesses, and communities to promote the circular economy and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable future.
23. Mitch Jackson
Having been with FedEx in various roles since 1993, Mitch Jackson has been integral in helping deliver FedEx’s promise of “the world on time”.
Since 2013, he’s held the role of the courier giant’s Head of Sustainability, oversees a range of impact reducing programs, including initiatives to increase fuel efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and promote sustainable packaging.
In 2021, FedEx welcomed its first fleet of electric vehicles and pledged $100 million to help establish the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture.
Jackson sits on the board of directors of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) and, for his public speaking and advocacy of the importance of corporate sustainability, he was awarded the Responsible Business Award for Sustainability Leader of the Year in 2020.
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24. Kathleen McLaughlin
A big box store that’s making a big effort to reduce their even bigger impact, Walmart sustainability leaders have stepped up over the last decade—including setting goals to be powered by 100% renewable energy and create zero waste.
Leading the charge is Kathleen McLaughlin.
Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of Walmart since 2023, McLaughlin oversees a range of programs, including initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, and promote sustainable sourcing.
Under McLaughlin’s leadership, Walmart has been recognized for its sustainability efforts, including being named to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and receiving accolades such as the CDP A List for climate change and the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.
She is also a member of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), serves on the board of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and was named a recipient of the Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Award for Sustainability Leader of the Year in 2018.
25. Kara Hurst
Kara Hurst is the Vice President of Sustainability and Social Responsibility at Amazon, leading one of the world’s largest online retailers in efforts to reduce its impact and implement social responsibility initiatives.
Considering how essential Amazon has become to so many people, it certainly needs more sustainable leaders and environmentally-minded executives like Hurst committed to “delivering progress every day”.
Hurst has over 25 years of experience in sustainability, environmental policy, and corporate social responsibility. Prior to joining Amazon, she was the CEO of The Sustainability Consortium and held leadership positions at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
She’s a frequent speaker at sustainability conferences and events and has been recognized as one of the leading experts in the field of sustainable business leadership.
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