Anne Stausboll (R), chief executive of CalPERS in conversation with Gina McCarthy at Ceres' 12th annual conference in San Francisco. (Photo: Courtesy Rob Scheid)
Anne Stausboll (R), chief executive of CalPERS in conversation with Gina McCarthy at Ceres' 12th annual conference in San Francisco. (Photo: Courtesy Rob Scheid)

SAN FRANCISCO - Who has enough clout to get Fortune 500 giants like PepsiCola, Nike, Disney, Ikea and Apple to change their environmental practices?

That credit would go to a Boston-based nonprofit with 80 employees and an $11 million budget. Ceres was founded in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez dumped more than 250,000 barrels of oil along a pristine section of Alaska’s coastline.

After the spill and clean up cost ExxonMobil more than $4.3 billion, Ceres decided to speak a language the corporate world would understand: that environmentalism can translate to profits.

Ceres President Mindy Lubber (L) talks with EPA Ad
Ceres President Mindy Lubber (L) talks with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (R) and Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board at Ceres' recent annual conference in San Francisco. (Photo: Courtesy Rob Scheid)

“Twenty-five years ago when we started, the concept of integrating sustainability into a Fortune 500 company sounded like lunacy," said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres. "Now, hundreds and hundreds of companies, whether they’re Ceres members or not, are looking at sustainability and how to integrate it into everything they do. So, I think we have changed the conversation...this is not just about idealistic terms, but about how to make money and do good at the same time.”

So far, Ceres has convinced more than one hundred multi-national corporations to change their environmental practices.

The nonprofit tailors its recommendations to each company’s individual needs, demonstrating to high-powered executives how combating climate change, cutting energy use, and managing water shortages and resource depletion, will actually help their bottom line.
That counters objections businesses often raise against tougher environmental standards -- that making changes to their operations to meet will cost too much.

That argument swayed Thomas Neimann, Global Sustainability Manager at the Ford Motor Company, who says Ceres highlighted issues Ford may never have addressed on its own.

"We are now looking at how we do our business, how we introduce our products, and how they are used out in the world," he said. "If a corporation, in particular, wants to grow, wants to improve their corporate citizenship performance, then they ought to be a member of Ceres.  It won’t always be easy, it won’t always be comfortable, but, invariably, it will always be positive."

The clout that has allowed Ceres to meet with CEO’s and get into their boardrooms comes from the 117 investors and shareholder groups which have joined Ceres’ mission.  

One of them is the $300 billion California Public Employees Retirement System. Its chief executive Anne Stausboll appreciates that what Ceres does helps the companies her shareholders invest in stay profitable.

"Making sure that the companies are doing best practices, addressing the challenges and opportunities that climate and natural resource availability, and those types of issues pose, is critical to their long-term sustainability," she said. "Ceres does amazing work to address those issues, but without taking a doom and gloom approach."

Another aspect of Ceres' work is to make corporations aware of conditions along their supply chains, such as the treatment of workers in Southeast Asia.

"‘Large companies are about the most capable and able entity to make sure that  those women and, often, children, which is not acceptable, who are creating and making our products, that those things are being made and done in conditions that are fair to the workers," said Ceres' Lubber.

"Those issues need to be clear," she said. "They need to be priorities for companies and many companies are addressing them.  But we’d like to see more of that.  We’d like to see clarity.  We’d like to see data.  We’d like to see in-person, on-the ground audits of those facilities to make sure workers are treated right.”

Lubber says Ceres will continue to spread the message expressed in its Climate Declaration, signed by some 1200 business executives, to be presented to Congress. The document says, 'We declare as business leaders that addressing climate is not only imperative but is, perhaps, the greatest economic opportunity of our future.’ Lubber is convinced that if companies and investors are talking to members of Congress as leaders of the economy,  and making the case that we need to act for a number of reasons, we will start to change that debate.