01 Mar 2017
Engaging Businesses to Save the Earth

Carter Roberts (MBA 1988) is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States. World Wildlife Fund is the world's largest network of international conservation organizations, working across 100 countries and with five million members worldwide. Roberts’s own path to conservation began with a love for climbing mountains coupled with a background in business. The Q&A below was compiled from a 2013 interview with Brian Kenny, Harvard Business School's chief marketing and communications officer, and has been edited for length and clarity.

BRIAN KENNY: For those who aren't familiar with World Wildlife Fund, what can you tell us about it?

CARTER ROBERTS: 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 and to create a movement and the support to save them. 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. 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. How did come to where you are now?

CR: Most environmental leaders, if you ask them why they do what they do, 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 right when the Internet was invented, and the idea was to create a green business that would feature cloth diapers and lots of other things. What we learned, unfortunately, was that at that time 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.

My partner came in and said, "You know, I have a confession to make. I've been interviewing for another job. 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. So you should always treat your partners well is the moral of the story.

BK: So you speak the language of scientists, policymakers, and business leaders, all of which is important in your line of work. Can you describe the changing nature of the mission of World Wildlife Fund?

CR: People ask me: if I want to save the planet, should I start my career in business, government or with an NGO like WWF? 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. But then you realize that unless you create national laws, 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. What you learn is that a lot of nature is in land that is actively managed for crops. It's actively managed for timber. 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. 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: 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, the Chairman at Coke, and Hank Paulson about why companies do this. 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 want be successful, but they also want to address the biggest problems that the world faces.” 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 World Wildlife Fund’s mission, and I’m drawing that from an article that you published in Foreign Policy Magazine where you talk about Earth Overshoot Day. There are some pretty daunting statistics in there.

CR: Every two years we produce a report called The Living Planet Report that estimates what the difference is between what we demand in terms of food, energy, water and all the rest, compared to what the planet can sustain. Two years ago we 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. As China catches up to the US standard of living, we're going to get to two planets. As India catches up to us, it will be three. 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. Earth Overshoot Day basically captured the fact that at the end of the summer we have used up our annual allotment of what the planet can sustain.


If we stay on the course 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. 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. 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.

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