Carter Roberts (MBA ’88) traces his enchantment with nature back to his early childhood in Atlanta, where he roamed a backyard forest and discovered a fascinating world of creatures under rotting logs. “Ask any conservationist to describe how they got involved in this work,” says Roberts, “and nine out of ten will describe turning over logs and discovering things when they were little.”
Four decades later, he’s still discovering nature, but on a global scale. Since his appointment in February 2005 as president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, Roberts, 44, has been charged by a bull elephant in the Congo, swum with penguins in the Galapagos, mingled with bison in the American West, and camped out among grizzly bears in Alaska. It’s all part of his job as head of a multinational conservation organization with 3,800 employees in more than 100 countries and annual revenues in excess of $126 million. The privately financed organization has nearly 5 million members.
Under his leadership, the WWF has launched an ambitious new strategy to focus its efforts on protecting nineteen of the planet’s most endangered ecoregions, including rain forests, coral reefs, oceans, rivers, and deserts. (See a map at www.worldwildlife.org/wildplaces.) To accomplish this goal by 2015, the WWF will work to reshape global markets, policies, and institutions to ensure a sustainable future for nature and people alike. “The legacy we want to leave behind is that we’ve made a difference, and that we created models and hope for the world,” explains Roberts. He recently talked about the WWF’s new mission.
What’s the rationale behind your new conservation strategy?
From a management point of view, the big challenge when I started was that we had people working on a wide array of projects, but their work wasn’t at all connected. What I saw as the institution’s greatest strength was its combination of field-based conservation work and policy work, but it was dispersed across 100 countries. We decided to focus on nineteen places where we could make the greatest difference — places like the Amazon, the Congo, and the coral reefs of Indonesia. And we created integrated teams for each place both to work locally and to deliver global results with related industries and policies. The effect has been magical.
What are the biggest obstacles the WWF faces in trying to create sustainable management practices?
I’d say issue number one is governance. A lot of the logging that goes on is illegal. And a lot of the fishing practices are illegal. Half of the catch in the Bering Sea off the coast of Russia, for example, is controlled by the Russian mafia. So improved governance by engaging both local people and national governments is a fundamental issue.
The second challenge is the impact of globalization. Whether you’re trying to save rain forests in Borneo or the Amazon, or save the world’s major fisheries, you’ve got to deal with global forces. And you’ve got to be able to engage institutions at that level because any kind of strictly local solution is going to fail.
Third, we need to tell our stories better than we have. Instead of describing the environment as something out there that’s apart from people, we need to talk about the environment as something that people are a part of, and to really talk about the benefits to people of saving forests and fisheries.
Has globalization created a heightened sense of urgency at the WWF to work more quickly to save endangered species and habitats?
Absolutely. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson talks about how over the next thirty years the world is going to go through a bottleneck because of population and consumption growth. If we don’t make commitments now to conserve endangered places, they won’t be here thirty years from now.
But fighting globalization makes little sense. We need to learn how to steer it so it doesn’t have negative impacts on the environment. We’re not for stopping economic growth; we’re advocating being smart about it. The first part of our goal statement is about conserving the world’s most important places. But the second half is effecting change in market forces.
What kind of market changes do you advocate?
We have already had some success with the creation of certification programs that advance sustainable forests and fisheries. We sponsored the creation of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, each of which establishes standards for sustainable use of resources. Wal-Mart, for example, just committed to buy seafood only from MSC-certified fisheries. This decision has rocked the industry because Wal-Mart is the second-largest buyer of fish in the United States.
We’re also tracking and documenting trade flows so that when Staples, for example, buys copy paper, it knows where the trees it’s made from were cut. That means the company can create and enforce purchasing standards so it’s not unwittingly contributing to illegal logging.
We’re also exploring how you create financial incentives in markets for doing the right thing. So on climate change, for example, how do you create a market where people get credit for avoiding deforestation, which contributes to greenhouse gases?
Is the emphasis on understanding and altering market forces something new for the WWF?
We did it a little in the past, but now we’re building a whole organization around it because we know that ultimately we will fail if we don’t. We also see great opportunity. When I meet with CEOs of different businesses, they all see the environment and sustainable use and conservation as really important strategic issues for several reasons. One is to protect and secure their supply chain. A second is to gain competitive advantage relative to other people in their industry. Another is to appeal to their customers, who are demanding more and more that businesses behave in a responsible way.
As a nonprofit, can you engage directly in political debate over environmental issues such as climate change?
We’re a nonpartisan group. Our board is half Republican and half Democrat and includes scientists like Jared Diamond, business leaders like David Bonderman and Ed Bass, and civic leaders like Bill Reilly and Russ Train. So we don’t get involved in partisan issues. But we do advance science and document the consequences of decisions that we make as a society. And while businesses like GE, Wal-Mart, and Johnson & Johnson are showing real leadership on the environment, some of our national elected officials have not shown the kind of leadership they should on issues like climate change and the footprint of some of our practices.
What is the WWF’s position on the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change?
Ninety-nine percent of the scientific community says the evidence is clear that climate change is real, and it’s caused by humans. We’re really working hard to make sure that the next global protocol — the successor to Kyoto due in 2012 — is one that the United States can commit to and that there are real mechanisms to ensure more efficient use and sourcing of energy.
Is there a need for a supranational organization, like the United Nations, that focuses exclusively on environmental issues?
Yes, there is. We have the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that focus on global health issues. We have political leaders, like Tony Blair, who have made global poverty their cause. And we’ve got NGOs, like CARE and Oxfam, that have also made poverty a defining issue. We need to do the same thing on the environment, and we need to do that in the next five years.
Are you optimistic about the WWF’s chances for success?
In the very best companies there is a culture where people want to do the right thing on these issues, not just because of supply chain or competitive advantage, but because increasingly they also want to be good citizens. And they want to do the right thing while delivering to their stockholders. I’ve seen some of these public-private partnerships, like those sponsored by the WWF, become wellsprings for really creative ideas on how to deliver for shareholders and also to do the right thing for the environment. So yes, I’m cautiously optimistic.