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How to get corporate sustainability right

Mastercard’s chief sustainability officer discusses how companies can avoid greenwashing and align with their social and environmental values.

Chris Field and Ellen Jackowski. (Image credit: Justin Warren)

Ellen Jackowski, the chief sustainability officer at Mastercard, has had a passion for sustainable business since her first high school job - scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s. “While it was something simple that I was doing, the company’s values were really present in the core of my experience,” she said during a recent public conversation with Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “From the ingredients used in the ice cream, to the packaging that materials arrived in, and how they treated workers and the rights that we had.”

This early experience led Jackowski to build a career in corporate sustainability, aiming to embed sustainability throughout each organization she worked with. In an era of corporate greenwashing headlines, Jackowski’s conversation with Field revealed profitable pathways for companies to reimagine their societal role, promote greater transparency, and embed sustainability throughout their organizations.

“We need to make money in the transition to sustainable consumption,” Jackowski said, “and Mastercard makes money when people buy stuff. So, can this consumption be sustainable?” Jackowski offered the example of a partnership that puts consumption in line with conservation: The company is working with cities to enable contactless acceptance of credit cards in public transport systems, as opposed to the use of physical metro cards. The change takes some friction out of the public transit experience, and hopefully encourages more sustainable travel, while increasing contactless payment and decreasing the production of metro cards - a sustainability-meets-consumption win, she explained.

Convincing people to buy more sustainable products is also a challenge Jackowski sees as worth taking on. Companies are up against the pervasive intention-action gap: consumers report a desire to buy sustainably-marketed products, but their purchasing patterns say otherwise. Consumers also lack access to information on the environmental and social footprint of the products they are purchasing, making it difficult to make informed purchasing decisions. Mastercard has tried to address this gap by launching a carbon calculator that allows card users to see the estimated average carbon impact of the purchases they make as line items in their monthly bill. “The more light you shine in these areas, the better decisions get made,” Jackowski said.  

Similarly, the more people a company empowers to contribute toward sustainability goals, the more effective the effort will be, Jacksowski said. “Who within my company has the most power to determine whether we hit our sustainability goals? It’s actually not me. Looking at our carbon footprint, it’s our head of technology, our data centers. Our head of marketing manages the second biggest part of the company’s footprint.” In line with this idea, Mastercard recently changed its compensation structure so that bonuses company-wide are informed by whether the business has met its sustainability goals, creating an incentive for every employee to consider how their role ties to the company’s sustainability performance.

“Our statement is ‘doing well by doing good,” Jackowski said. “This is part of our business strategy. This is part of the future of the company, and how we will survive financially and grow.”

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