The big stories of 2020 were not just about a pandemic, a reckoning on racial justice, an economic calamity and the ever-imminent rise of climate change impacts. If a crisis is the ultimate test of leadership, last year provided ample narratives about leaders stepping up.

These 20 C-suite executives have steered their companies forward through much disruption, providing inspiration for the possibilities of advancing sustainability, social responsibility and circular business models — sometimes all at once. Often working from home themselves, they empathized with employees and other stakeholders, some refusing to issue layoffs. They sparked uncomfortable conversations about diversity and discrimination, some pledging many millions of dollars to address lingering inequities internally and in society at large. Many celebrated with their CSOs on meeting ambitious corporate targets for 2020, while setting audacious new goals for 2025, 2030 and 2050.

Each of these individuals is playing the long game and is in a strong position to move their companies and industries into what could be a more hopeful period of reconciliation, recovery and repair.

Many "firsts" are on the list, especially in terms of the number of women cracking the glass ceiling in their roles. Many leaders in this cohort happen to have climbed the ranks at one company for decades. Most support science-based targets and sit on multiple boards, collaborations and advocacy groups to further industry-level sustainability goals.

  • Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors; Detroit
  • Christophe Beck, CEO, Ecolab; St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Rosalind 'Roz' Brewer, COO and Group President, Starbucks
  • Patrick Collison, CEO and co-founder, Stripe; San Francisco
  • João Paulo Ferreira, CEO, Natura &Co Latin America; São Paulo
  • Beth Ford; President & CEO; Land O’Lakes; Arden Hills, Minnesota
  • Logan Green, Co-founder and CEO, Lyft; San Francisco
  • Mauricio Gutierrez, CEO, NRG; Houston
  • Helena Helmersson, COO, H&M Group; Stockholm

Read the full article about sustainability champions by Elsa Wenzel at GreenBiz.