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Take Five: WWF head says environmentalism and economics don't have to clash

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - Talking about sustainability and profitability going hand in hand may summon up an unlikely image of the leaders of Greenpeace and the Chamber of Commerce gathering in a circle and singing “Kumbaya.”

But Yolanda Kakabadse says an increasing number of corporations is realizing that a wise use of natural resources is good policy, not only for the environment but for the bottom line as well.

Kakabadse is president of the WWF – three letters that around the globe mean World Wide Fund for Nature but in the United States still stand for the World Wildlife Fund. It’s known by its panda logo. No matter what you call it, Kakabadse said, the organization is dedicated to making sure that natural resources are used in the most efficient way possible.

Companies are learning that such a policy is not only good stewardship for the Earth, but it’s also good business sense, said Kakabadse, who is in St. Louis this week for the inaugural program of Webster University’s Global Leaders in Residence program.

At events with titles such as “Destination You: The Future of Our Planet” and “Executive Sustainability: Using Sustainability to Drive Change, Innovation and Profits,” she wants to drive home the relationship between two types of green – environmental awareness and successful business.

“If you want to compete in the world,” she told the Beacon in an interview, “You have to be as sustainable as possible.”

Born in Ecuador, Kakabadse became active in environmental organizations in that country and around the world. She has served as minister of environment for her home country as well as using her expertise at Yale's School of Forestry and Environment, the World Conservation Union, the Environmental Sustainability Task Force of the UN Millennium Project and many other efforts. She became president of WWF International in January 2010.

In addition to working with businesses, it wants individuals to adopt its 10 principles of One Planet Living.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Has it been difficult making businesses see the benefits of wise use of natural resources?

Kakabadse: In the past couple of decades, many cases show that sustainable is more profitable. It will keep a business going for a longer term than if it depletes resources in the short term.

In every sort of industry, you can do sustainability. It’s not only because you get economic profit but also because you get more social recognition. And that way you definitely have an advantage in the market.  Take Unilever. They have been working toward getting palm oil harvested in a way there is no depletion of forests. With fish food, they use only material caught in an area that is sustainable. It goes all the way through the chain of production.

It is the consumer who defines what is best for society. The consumer is the one who chooses, and now, with the information technology we have at hand, you as the consumer can go into the market and buy products where you can go can go on Google and see if the product is sustainable, whether it has any chemicals or coloring that has been added. You get it or don’t get it, depending on the information you get. If you want to compete in the world, you have to be as sustainable as possible.

You served in an environmental capacity with the government of Ecuador. What role does government have in sustainability?

Kakabadse: The government's role is absolutely essential. A government needs to have an environmental agency that looks into all production processes, to reduce the impact on the environment.

The question is: How do we continue to grow economically by using environmental resources in the most sustainable way? In the past we have misused them, without taking any notice of sustaining the natural capital that sustains life.

Public policy must make sure that any user of natural resources such as air, water and soil meets standards in their own activity and impacts the environment as little as possible.

We don’t read enough about the things going on in this area. I would say the Northeastern states, as well as California, have moved along on sustainable production and consumption, reducing energy use and reducing waste and reducing CO2 emissions. You don’t hear enough about that.

Sometimes local government will regulate how to use technology to meet the standards, but you also need government to participate in the process to create public policy. You can do it on your own and create the need. What usually happens is that public policy comes afterward, when it is demonstrated that it can be done and society starts pushing for a policy.

Does government take science seriously enough on issues like climate change?

Kakabadse: For some strange reason, we human beings usually act only when we are on the verge of a precipice, when the drama hits us. Climate change, when it is becoming warmer or raining less, doesn’t move people into behaving differently. But they do move when they have something more dramatic, like a storm or a drought. Unfortunately, we usually act too late, when we could have prevented many of the episodes of climate change, but that’s how humans behave unfortunately.

The scientific community worldwide has proven it can give to society data that are in front of our eyes. It is demonstrating that this is verified information. I also think that every year, we have new instruments, new tools to measure things like climate change. We also need the action of key leaders around the world to strengthen the message that we need to react as a society.

I’m hopeful. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I keep struggling. Sometimes, there are unnoticed changes all around us. We just have to look at them to see that society is not only willing to change but dedicated to provoking change.

Talk about the Earth Hour program that WWF began.

Kakabadse: It originated as a way to demonstrate that everyone has to play a part. You can recognize that action is for everybody. It’s not only for the big ones or the rich ones or the government. It is in the hands of every member of society.

This year, we asked everyone to turn off lights for one hour on March 31. Each year we have moved into getting from individuals a commitment to do something in addition. You can reduce the time you use your car and try to use public transportation. You can reduce the consumption of energy in your home or your office by regulating the air conditioning or the heating system. You can try to reduce waste, especially in food. Buy what you are going to use and do not buy more food than you need, then throw away a large stock of what you have at home. We need little actions and big actions from all kinds of society.

One of the companies you have been involved with, Holcim, was a target of environmentalists locally when it built a cement plan in Ste. Genevieve. How is its record on sustainability?

Kakabadse: Because of the amount of energy they use, Holcim can have a tremendous impact on CO2 emissions. Holcim and other large cement companies have made a very important investment in new technology to reduce their use of energy and the emissions of CO2.

The Holcim Foundation has pushed for sustainable construction. It is not interested in sustainability with cement because it is a cement company. It is interested in sustainable construction with whatever material is preferred by the designer, and also interested in the technology used in construction – how the energy is provided, how the water is disposed of, what kind of systems are used for air conditioning in the homes. It is very interested in the process of pushing and promoting innovation in the construction field.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.