At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Michael Kobori, Chief Sustainability Officer at Starbucks, about why this is the most crucial moment for ESG that the field has ever faced, the power of leadership companies to change whole industries, and why tapping into your employees is essential.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How did your personal and professional journey to the field of ESG begin?

Michael Kobori, Chief Sustainability Officer, Starbucks: When I was 17 years old, my father insisted that I apply for a scholarship offered by his company to spend the summer on a foreign exchange program. When you’re 17 years old, you want to spend the summer with your friends, not go to another country. But he made me apply, I got the scholarship, and spent the summer with a host family in Tokyo, Japan. 

Spending that time in my ancestral homeland, and even meeting some of my distant relatives, awakened in me a passion for thinking globally, and set me on a career that would lead to learning more about the world and working to understand and address the challenges facing humankind.  

As someone who has spent most of my life thinking globally, I think a lot about the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 — it was incredible to see how these protests sparked movements all around the globe. They definitely helped me to reframe my views on social justice.

Another factor that has helped to frame my perspectives on social justice is my ethnicity. I’m a third-generation Japanese-American, and I never used to think about the fact that both of my parents, who were second-generation Americans, spent their youth in the internment camps during World War II. Growing up in the Japanese-American community, we just didn’t talk about it. But the powerful truth is that they were imprisoned by the United States government as enemy aliens.

Today, years later, my two daughters, who are much more conscious about ethnicity and diversity than I was, have awakened my personal history and sense of social justice. They and their generation are alive with discussions about justice and movements for reparations. I’m gratified to see that the Asian-American experience is part of the conversation. And it’s helped me to realize how my family’s history is such a big part of my desire for justice.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in ESG?

Kobori, Starbucks: I’ve been working in this field for nearly 30 years; well before we called it ESG. The work has evolved so much from those days of corporate social responsibility. And as the work evolves, the more we as a society recognize that the challenges of the capitalist system — like inequality and our environmental challenges — are reaching a head.

The current moment has been such an evolution from the early days. It has become so expansive — and as it expands, it keeps bringing more and more stakeholders to the table, including investors and regulators who are helping to change the system.  

Today, there is a clear recognition that the corporate sector is the most powerful and trusted institution in society — even more than nonprofits and governments. With this comes the urgent responsibility to address our global challenges and do our part to help build an equitable, sustainable future.

This is the most crucial moment ever for ESG. While we all try to address our companies’ footprints and the inequalities that may exist in our respective spaces, the real inflection point comes when more and more of us start realizing that we are part of a bigger system: We must ask ourselves what our responsibility is in enlisting others to help change the status quo. 

As practitioners, I think there are tremendous opportunities for us to contribute to society’s well-being and the planet. We need to think beyond our own companies and remind ourselves that the scale at which our business operates is societal and planetary. 

Currently, we are all individually addressing broader societal challenges. People ask if we are collaborating with other organizations and companies focused on the same ecosystem. It’s important to move from individual efforts to collective impact and find ways to capture this progress. When a company thinks on a wider scale, it unlocks opportunities to collaborate for the benefit of society. And collaboration is the only way we can enlist others to help restore ecosystems because, ultimately, success lies in contributing to the restoration of landscapes, which is what matters most to the planet.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your success? How do you approach getting buy-in on the work you’re driving?

Kobori, Starbucks: I’ve been fortunate to work for companies like Starbucks and Levi Strauss & Co., which have been recognized by others as leaders in sustainability. We know that the initiatives we pioneer can influence others in the industry. If Starbucks is successful in eliminating single-use cups and shifting to a reusable cup system, the industry will take notice. At Levi’s, the designers wanted to use less water in the manufacturing process. They came up with techniques to create the worn look on jeans using less water, which led to changes in the industry. Companies that manufactured washing machines began designing machines that used less water. Now, those machines are standard in every apparel factory worldwide.  

Leadership companies have the power to change entire industries. This is why I work for companies like these: We can have a broader influence on the system. 

If you find yourself at an organization that has the potential to lead and you’re facing headwinds because the organization does not have sustainability or responsibility as its ethos, you should focus on the business case for sustainability. It’s there, and it’s been demonstrated over the years — particularly for building resilience in your supply chain. 

It’s also essential to appeal to a company’s talent, especially the younger generation of employees and customers who expect sustainability and social justice from the brands they buy. When you appeal to a large swath of the workforce, that often means success is not dependent upon just one leader or executive. Tapping into your employees builds a movement for internal change that can actually have a societal impact as it starts to impact customers and communities outside of your business.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some initiatives you and your team are driving at Starbucks that you think are noteworthy, or that show promising signs of advancing the field?

Kobori, Starbucks: Corporations are often nervous about environmental and climate justice and unsure of what to do. In addition to researching and engaging with stakeholders to assuage those anxieties, I prefer to take action. For example, we’ve invested $97 million in a community solar project in upstate New York, benefiting low- to middle-income communities. 

Because of that investment, Generate, our partners in the community solar project, received a deal with New York State and identified a subsidy so that those 24,000 households actually ended up paying less for renewable energy than they were for fossil fuel-based energy — and we also provided renewable energy to all of our stores in those neighborhoods. And now that criteria is being applied as we look at all of the other renewable energy investments that our company is making. 

This investment started with Starbucks’ balance sheet cash, and it allowed us to use our profits to address social and environmental issues, which also allows us to continue to generate income from that investment.

Another notable effort is our work on reusable cups, with more than 20 pilots last year in the U.S. and internationally. We aim to phase out single-use cups and move towards more sustainable options, which will not only help us lead with our employees and customers, but across the industry.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your success?

Kobori, Starbucks: I believe in being a servant leader, supporting my team, and helping them obtain the resources they need. I set a clear vision and empower my team to develop strategies for achieving our goals, and then I support them by influencing key stakeholders, connecting the dots, and connecting people who are doing like-minded work. Being a leader means embedding the work of sustainability and social equity in the business and supporting those teams to own it. It means being a great cheerleader and a supporter of their work. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some peer leaders and some books that inspire your work?

Kobori, Starbucks: I greatly admire Erin Meezan, CSO at JLL, who was formerly CSO at Interface. I still think Interface does this better than anyone else, because their approach to social impact is totally embedded in what they do as a company. Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry Institute, also comes to mind. Janine is one of the most brilliant people I know when it comes to thinking about ecosystems, biology, and sustainability. Every time I speak with her and I think I have the answer to something, she kicks my intellectual butt and makes me realize that I’m only part of the way there.

Finally, there’s Heather McTeer Toney, who leads climate justice work at the Environmental Defense Fund. She is one of the writers profiled in one of the books I’d recommend: All We Can Save, an anthology of poems and essays by female, largely BIPOC, climate justice leaders edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson.

Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Harvard professor Dr. Rebecca Henderson is also an immensely powerful book, as is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, who has been called our greatest living science fiction writer. The Ministry for the Future describes a not-too-distant future where a U.N. Ministry has been created to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. And lastly, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is so helpful — it will always be my go-to for understanding organizational dynamics and building successful teams. 

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Starbucks is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.