World Wildlife Fund President and CEO Carter Roberts talks about why businesses need the planet just as much as the planet needs businesses.
The Business is a podcast from Harvard Business School that ran through 2015 and took a unique look at the business world through conversations with HBS faculty and entrepreneurs. It has since been replaced by Cold Call, a new podcast that distills the legendary HBS case method into digital form. Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.
Brian Kenny: Carter Roberts is President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States. World Wildlife Fund, the world's largest network of international conservation organizations, works across a hundred countries and enjoys the support of five million members worldwide. His path to conservation began with a love for climbing mountains. With inspiration from nature and a background in Business, he’s sought to solve problems by creatively influencing the way markets and businesses operate. Carter, thanks for joining us.
Carter Roberts: It's great to be here, thanks.
BK: So for those who aren't familiar with the World Wildlife Fund or may have it confused with other similar kinds of organizations, can you describe it for us?
CR: I think most people would recognize us by our logo, which is the Panda. We were founded by royalty and scientists 50 years ago to draw the world's attention to creatures and places far, far away to create a movement and support to save them. And, of course, what we learned along the way is you can't save a tiger without saving its habitat. You can't save its habitat without engaging the communities around it. You can't make that last unless the government is behind it. Then at the end of the day none of that is going to last unless you deal with climate change and you deal with the big commodities markets that are placing demands on that same piece of land. So our work has become more and more sophisticated over time.
BK: Tell us a little bit about your professional journey. Like how did you, how did you end up here?
CR: Most environmental leaders, if you ask them why do they do what they do, they would tell you a chestnut of a story about turning over logs and looking at salamanders when they were a little kid, and I did that for sure. But the precise moment of how I got here is a curious one. I was working at Gillette. An HBS classmate of mine and I wanted to start a business. It was just right when the Internet was invented, and the idea was to create a green business and it would feature cloth diapers and lots of other things. What we learned, unfortunately at that time was that the cloth diaper business in this region had a heavy presence in the Mafia. That was a major stumbling block, and then we learned that it was difficult business model. And my partner came in and said, "You know, I have a confession to make. I've been interviewing for another job." And he said, "And I learned as I talked to them about it that you would be much better for that job." That was running the Nature Conservancy's Boston office and doing deals on the Vineyard and Nantucket. I went in, talked to them, got the job and now I'm here.
CR: So you should always treat your partners well is the moral of the story. [Laughter]
BK: I think there's a whole other Podcast on the Mafia-- [Laughter]
BK: -- doing diapers. [Laughter]
CR: Yeah, something about money laundering I don't know.
BK: So you speak the language of scientists, policymakers, and business leaders, all of which are kind of really important in your line of work. Can you describe the changing nature of the mission of the World Wildlife Fund?
CR: People ask me if you want to save the planet should I start my career in business, government or with an NGO like WWF, and my answer at the end of the day is: it doesn't matter. The thing that matters is your ability to connect the dots between those sectors, because that's where the big solutions happen. It's when civil society engages with business, and they are both engaged with government to pass laws that create a legal framework that supports the best actors in the business world that recognizes the value of nature. That's where the best stuff happens. If you just take the case of elephants. We started in Africa looking to save elephants from extinction. We soon realized that unless you have big enough places for elephants to roam around, they won't survive. We worked on creating vast systems of parks throughout Africa. But then you realize that unless the local communities have a stake in that - if they don't own the wildlife, if they don't have a share of the proceeds from people coming to see it, then poaching will occur. And so we created community—based programs where communities benefit from the parks and everything; but then you realize that unless you create national laws that that's not going to last because as governments come and go, without a lasting legal framework the community's rights aren't going to be preserved. And then you realize unless you engage the biggest companies of the world who are sending market signals to purchase things from Africa, whether that's minerals, or oil, or food, or whatever it happens to be, there will constantly be an outside pressure to destroy the places we cherish.
BK: I read a quote where you said, "If we think of nature as a museum, we're doomed." Can you talk a little bit about that?
CR: If all we have are parks then people will line up to pay an entrance fee to see what the world used to look like. And our businesses won't survive, and we won't survive if that's the case. And so what you learn is that a lot of nature is in land that is actively managed for crops. It's actively managed for timber. You know, one of the only ways we're going to keep forests intact around the world is not just to put it all under glass, but to manage it sustainably; and that's the essence of our work with the private sector: to find the right ways to use the planet, to meet the needs of people without destroying it.
BK: I think a lot of people have a kind of cynical view of big businesses that get involved in sustainability efforts, and you've drawn a distinction between corporate social responsibility and socially responsible corporations that seems to be sort of at the heart of the partnerships that you're building. You've done a lot of work with Coca Cola. I would be interested to hear how some of that partnership is working out.
CR: The biggest risk to their business model is there are parts of the world where they have a thousand bottling plants, if there is no water to produce the coke, then they can't survive. And so they worked with us on how do they make their model more water efficient? So we set hard targets--20 percent reduction in water use in all their bottling plants in the first phase. We reached that. Now we are doubling down, the new goal is another 25 percent water efficiency. We set a goal on the ingredients that goes into Coke, and they worked with us to create a sustainability standard for sugar, for citrus, for all kinds of other crops that go into their products, so that their suppliers use less water in producing the things that are a part of the Coke the we drink.
BK: So for them this isn't sort of an altruistic thing that they're doing. This makes good sense for their business.
CR: There was a great study done on the stock prices of two sets of companies, one of which has sustainability standards and one of which didn't. It showed over the past 15 years, the stock price for those with sustainability standards actually outperformed significantly that ones that didn't. And I think that's because of all the things I just mentioned. So we now have partnerships at Unilever, Wal-Mart, McDonald's, IKEA, all kinds of companies. And it's only growing
BK: People want to do business with brands and companies that are socially responsible, right? You've talked about leveraging the power of change in the marketplace to effect change on the ground. Do you see this as a movement that is really starting to get some traction now?
CR: It is. It's getting more traction with global companies international companies, companies who in their reach see all the effects of resource scarcity and climate change. I will never forget talking with Neville Isdell who is the Chairman at Coke who is now Chairman of my Board and Hank Paulson about why companies do this. And the most unexpected thing they said was look, the best and the brightest don't want to just make money. The best and the brightest they want be successful, but they also want to address the biggest problems that the world faces. And so those businesses whether it's Goldman Sachs or Coke, or Proctor & Gamble that are far minded about this, and have really creative and real programs on sustainability, are going to attract the best and the brightest as part of their ranks.
BK: There is a real sense of urgency behind the World Wildlife Fund mission, and I’m drawing that from the article that you recently published in Foreign Policy Magazine where you talk about Earth Overshoot day. And there are some pretty daunting statistics in there. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on that.
CR: Every two years we produce a report called The Living Planet Report that estimates what's the difference between what we demand in terms of food, energy, water and all the rest, compared to what the planet can sustain. Two years ago were at 1.3 times what the planet can sustain over the long term. This year's we're at 1.5. It would be the equivalent of a farmer not just eating the crops that he grows, but eating the seeds that he wants to plant for the following year. And as China catches up to the US standard of living, we're going to get to two planets. And then as India catches up to us, it will be three. And obviously we only have one planet. If we want to have all those things we enjoy now, into the future, we have to find a way to make the things we enjoy using less land, energy, and water. So earth overshoot day basically captured the fact that at the end of s summer we have used up our annual allotment of what the planet can sustain. And for the rest of the year we're living on borrowed time, and it's—
BK: Is it too late? I mean are we—
CR: It's not too late, but - you know if we stay on the course where we're on now, there are all kinds of bad things that are going to happen. You've all seen the climate change projections. But the evidence I see is it's not too late. The planet has an amazing capacity to regenerate itself. You've just got to give it the space to do so. You know, we were down to a hundred rhinos in 1900. Now there are 20,000 roaming around Africa. We just have to make the right smart choices on how we build dams, how we build roads, how we source the food that we eat; and I have a lot of confidence that it's not too late, but we need leading businesses to send the right signals, and we need governments to create the right regulatory frameworks.
BK: Has this approach of partnering with businesses put you at odds in any way with environmentalists?
CR: Ever since I started at WWF and we started down this path, I've gotten slings and arrows from other parts of the environmental movement that I was sleeping with the enemy, had sold out the cause, tarnishing our brand. And my answer is: look, we're going to fail, unless we engage the business world.
BK: Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, thanks for joining us.
CR: Thank you. It's has been a pleasure.