Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

A picture taken on June 5, 2015 shows a worker checking bottles of margarine on the packaging line at the Unilever's factory in Rotterdam.

JOHN THYS/AFP / Getty Images

Green Giants

By E. Freya Williams

(Amacom, 278 pages, $38.50)

Story continues below advertisement

Sustainability has become big business. Big as in billions. Once the territory of small health-food stores and the occasional mid-size business – with a fervent, if tiny customer base – these days it has mass appeal and is leading to big ambitions and big profits.

That's shown by the latest book on sustainable business, Green Giants, from consultant E. Freya Williams. In the past, efforts on this subject seemed wishful and proselytizing, although they usually contained solid examples of (seemingly lonely) companies making great strides by going green. Ms. Williams' book, instead, catalogues nine businesses that she calls Green Giants because they have $1-billion (U.S.) or more in annual revenues that can be directly attributed to a product, service or line of business with sustainability or social good at its core. The book's tone: Get with it, you're behind the times. Indeed, it reads like any other manual on how great companies succeed, except this time the winners happen to be thriving through their green ideals.

Among the nine are two behemoths not generally known for sustainability: General Electric and Unilever. But a lot of GE's success in recent years flows from its Ecomagination products – from diesel locomotives to electric charging stations – that are certified as delivering superior environmental and financial performance to its customers. Chief executive officer Jeffrey Immelt looked to the future and saw the many industrial customers he served as needing to go green, for financial and regulatory reasons, and has been supplying them with the opportunity.

Unilever, which was founded to mass produce a product with life-saving health benefits – soap – at an affordable price, has in a way gone back to its roots under CEO Paul Polman, who insists "there is no contradiction between sustainability and profitable growth."

The company started to grow after 10 lean years, and the brands growing the fastest are those that embrace a social mission or sustainability. Unilever aims to double its sales while halving its environmental blueprint by 2002, sourcing 100 per cent of its agricultural feedstocks from sustainable agriculture.

The other seven companies or product lines are: Chipotle Mexican Grill, which serves its meals from pork, beef and chicken raised naturally and more humanely; Whole Foods Market, which derives 30 per cent of sales from organic products, more than any other American national retailer; Natura Brasil, a Brazilian manufacturer of beauty products that aims to source one-third of its ingredients sustainably from the Amazon; Tesla Motors, which manufactures the world's first commercially successful all-electric vehicle and now is aiming at a more economically priced, mass appeal electric car; IKEA, whose products for a more sustainable life at home bring in more than $1-billion in annual revenue while trying to help customers use energy efficiently; Nike, whose Flyknit shoe manufacturing process cuts waste by up to 80 per cent; and the Toyota Prius.

She identifies six key factors or traits behind their success.

Story continues below advertisement

  • The iconoclast leader: In each case, the sustainability journey can be traced back to a leader with an inner sense of conviction, the courage to stand up and change things, the commitment and tenacity to stick with the idea through bad times, and the willingness to be a contrarian.
  • Disruptive innovation: The products and services are not green gloss on familiar products, but dramatic innovations that disrupted a category or industry, as with Chipotle, which turned the fast-food model upside down by building a chain based on more expensive, ethically and environmentally responsible ingredients or, of course, the Prius hybrid and the electric car.
  • A higher purpose: The Green Giants are animated by more than just making a profit. IKEA’s mission: “To create a better everyday life for people.” Unilever: “To make sustainable living commonplace.” She writes that “purpose-driven business envisions business as a force for good, a force with the power to change the world around it and to deliver tangible improvement to human life and the environment.” It’s not about philanthropy. She stresses that they understand purpose is “not just where the company spends its money but how it earns it.”
  • Built in, not bolted on: Sustainability is integrated into the six core structures of the company – strategy, organization, governance, costs, incentives and reporting. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, she stresses, is not the company’s sustainability strategy – it’s the business strategy, the only one the company has.
  • Mainstream appeal: What she calls the “Super Green” niche of consumers covers 16 per cent of the population and hasn’t been growing. The Green Giants also aim for the 66 per cent who have good intentions but often don’t follow through. The key is to avoid trying to guilt them into buying and make it easy and rewarding to use the product.
  • A new behavioural contract: Transparency, responsibility, and collaboration are buzzwords, often ignored by companies. But the Green Giants realize their behaviour is their brand, and act responsibly.

It's a fascinating account, well-written, thoughtful, and loaded with rich anecdotes. It also forces us to overcome the mythology propagated by free-market apostle Milton Friedman and accept that for many large companies acting in the public interest can help the bottom line.


In Grit to Great (Crown Business,158 pages, $25.95) marketers Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval show how perseverance, pluck and patience can lead to extraordinary success.

The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook (Career Press, 254 pages, $17.95) by consultants Barbara Mitchell and Cornelia Gamlem identifies key forms of conflict and offer ideas to handle such situations.

Paul Downs, author of the You're The Boss blog for the New York Times, tells how he survived his small business in Boss Life (Blue Rider Press, 332 pages, $34.95)

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies