Sustainability leaders stand at the precipice of a pivotal moment for the future of our climate. While no single individual claims to have all of the answers, changemakers are increasingly turning to each other to chart the course forward for sustainable innovation and climate action — exchanging insights on how to implement unique initiatives, harness emerging technologies, institute best practices, and challenge conventional wisdom in order to effect transformative changes for our ecosystems, our societies, and our most vulnerable.

In 2024, Sustainability Next — a new editorial flagship series from NationSwell — will spotlight the standard-bearing corporate sustainability leaders, entrepreneurs, experts, philanthropists, and more whose catalytic work has the potential to shape the landscape of progress amid urgent need for environmental action. 

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Ellen Jackowski, Chief Sustainability Officer and Executive Vice President at Mastercard.

Jason Rissman, Chief Experience Officer, NationSwell: Ellen, when we first met, you were leading sustainability at HP. What brought you to this field, and was there a moment in your life that galvanized your commitment to bold climate action?

Ellen Jackowski, Chief Sustainability Officer and Executive Vice President at Mastercard: My first job was working at a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop, and their story is pretty amazing — they were one of the earliest companies to really embed social and environmental values directly into their business model. So I was just scooping ice cream, but I really saw the value of how a business could align with social and environmental imperatives and create a difference from a business point of view. 

Those early experiences really shaped my perception that I could make a difference at a company like Mastercard, where environmental and social values are part of the business strategy.

Rissman: How would you define this present moment in sustainability? 

Jackowski, Mastercard: I’ll start with the concerning areas first: There is a ton of waste in our food system; in the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled while the number of times a garment is worn before being discarded has decreased by 36%; domestic and international aviation is responsible for about 10% of global emissions in the transport sector, and an estimated 1% of the global population is responsible for more than half of these emissions. 

So we have a big problem on our hands, there’s no doubt about that. 

But in terms of optimism, it’s clear that the next generation of consumers is demanding that companies, governments, and all of the important stakeholders take meaningful action. And as this next generation of voices gets louder, they have the ability to influence market shifts and we’re seeing that. 

All signs are pointing to the fact that we’re heading into a new market context driven by value shifts, with a lot of opportunity to optimize business models. 

Rissman: Talk to us a bit about Mastercard’s reach and how it informs your sustainability strategy.

Jackowski, Mastercard: We have 90 million merchants in-network and 3 billion cards in circulation, so we really have an opportunity to drive sustainable consumption. And for us, there are three main pillars to that strategy: inspire, inform, and enable.

Rissman: Let’s hear more about inspire, inform and enable. Tell us what’s working, where do you see the areas of most promise, and what’s challenging.

Jackowski, Mastercard: Inspire is really about stirring up hope and optimism and people’s ability to affect change, and one of the benefits of working for Mastercard is we have some really powerful sponsorships with some of the top artists and athletes in the world: the Grammys, Major League Baseball, a lot of different golf and tennis activities. 

The second pillar there is inform: If people are now inspired and want to live a more sustainable, fulfilling lifestyle, how do we provide the right information at the right time for them to be informed to make a more sustainable decision? We have a lot more work to do in this field, but we have our first product out, the Mastercard Carbon Calculator, which provides a certain level of information to card holders around sustainable choices and the carbon impacts of what they’re purchasing. 

And then the third pillar is enable. If you’re inspired and you’re informed, how do we then enable that change? How do we offer opportunities for consumers to take real action, meaningful action? 

Rissman: What’s been the biggest challenge in reaching your own net zero goals for a company like Mastercard?

Jackowski, Mastercard: Since we’re not a manufacturer, our carbon footprint, for the size of the company that we are and with the global reach, is quite small. But we still have a hard journey to reach net zero. 

When you break down our carbon footprint, the biggest section is our data centers, and we know that as AI and blockchain and other powerful computing technologies continue to expand, that could also potentially be the source of emissions growth as well. 

We’re really engaging at the individual employee level with tools and education and awareness about how the choices that they make will determine if Mastercard hits our net zero goal or not. 

And in fact, if you look at our 2022 ESG report, you’ll see that Mastercard experienced 18% growth in net revenue, but only a 3% increase in our emissions. Now, more work for us to do, no doubt, but it’s a good demonstration of how we’re beginning to see the signs of decoupling our corporate growth from our emissions.

Rissman: I think a lot of sustainability leaders are spending time thinking about how to structure their teams, how to integrate sustainability across business units. Any lessons that you’ve gathered that you can share about the best ways to organize?

Jackowski, Mastercard: Well, there are carrots and sticks. And one of the things Mastercard did almost two years ago was change our compensation system so that all 30,000 employees are now compensated on an annual basis on our progress against our ESG goals. 

And so for two years running, all 30,000 employees got that bonus because of our goals. So now that we’ve got that incentive built into the financial structure of how the company works, we followed that up with mandatory ESG and action training. 

Rissman: What have you learned about tackling Scope 3 that might be helpful to others?

Jackowski, Mastercard: We actually baked with Scope 3 into our incentive structure and that ESG compensation modifier. For the past couple of years, the target has been around getting our suppliers to report to CDP, and that’s what drove the compensation around our Scope 3 target. For this year, we’ve upped our game, and now it’s about suppliers setting a science-based target. 

Our suppliers have been very receptive to this so far. I think they’re getting pressure not just from us, but from the other companies that they’re serving as well. So plenty to do, but we have a clear strategy, and we’re continuing to amp it up.

Rissman: I recently read about your commitment to bring 30 million people onto your Community Pass platform over the next five years. Tell us about that initiative.

Jackowski, Mastercard: By leveraging our digital technology, Mastercard has created products like Community Pass — a shared, interoperable digital platform that reaches people in low and medium income countries to provide access to the digital economy, to help them build economic and often climate resilience. So, it’s a really great connection between the environmental side of the focus that we have as a company and the social impact side as well. 

When you’re creating social impact, oftentimes what that’s also building is climate resilience and toolkits for climate adaptation. Community Pass, with its focus on increasing access to critical services like healthcare, agriculture, and micro-commerce, has made a big difference in the world. And that’s why we were very invested in this goal to bring 30 million people onto the platform over the next five years.

Rissman: In order to take bolder action and move faster on climate, what needs to change?

Jackowski, Mastercard: I mean, a lot, right? A lot needs to change. 

I often think about the power of legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and the power it has to create that competitive spirit, not just here in the U.S. but in Europe and in other regions of the world.

But you know, it’s going to take many different ideas working together. Where I sit at Mastercard — having the support from our board, our CEO, the leadership team, to really innovate and challenge ourselves on how we do more faster, particularly in the sustainable consumption area — is exciting. We’ve got a lot of ambition, and we’re putting it into action.