Corporations and Conservation: The Long Road to Partnership

by Renzo Mendoza Castro

Since finishing a few weeks ago, my summer internship experience has been the most popular subject of conversation with friends and colleagues. When I say that I helped WWF develop regional corporate partnerships in Asia, people are caught off guard. I understand why: my work at Yale has mostly centered on sustainability issues in Latin America and, at first glance, working for a conservation organization in Asia seems out of synch.

A deeper look reveals crucial connections between the two regions.

“There is no sustainable world without a sustainable Asia-Pacific” according to the vision of WWF’s Asia Pacific Growth Strategy Team, which hosted me this summer. The catchy motto holds truth. The region accounts for about 50 percent of all international trade flows; the majority of its imports from developing regions, like Latin America, are commodities with large environmental impacts. This pattern is linked not only to direct consumption, but also to how companies source and value inputs. Working for WWF gave me experience in the types of corporate partnerships we could engage in to address the sustainability challenges of an interconnected world. It demonstrated how business efforts in Asia-Pacific could pay dividends for Latin American conservation.

WWF’s Market Transformation Initiative (MTI) is a driving force behind the organization’s corporate partnership strategy. The MTI was founded on the belief that making businesses more sustainable is the most efficient way to achieve conservation goals. Through the MTI, WWF identifies the commodities with the most significant impact on critical regions and focuses its efforts on transforming the biggest corporate players within those commodities’ value chains. In this TED talk, Jason Clay, Senior Vice-President of Market Transformation at WWF, eloquently explains the domino effect that this strategy will have on biodiversity conservation.

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From HuffPost: One joint degree’s summer of recycling innovation

Jancy Langley (MEM/MBA ’15) spent her summer tasked with using her business and environmental background to help launch a new recycling co-op. It didn’t go exactly as planned. Her account of the experience as an Alcoa Fellow at Greenovate Boston, and how she approached re-thinking the recommendations she could make to her employer was published on the Huffington Post this week. It’s an insightful take on what it really means to innovate, and why it’s important to be honest and iterative rather than just optimistic when looking for solutions. We’ve reposted the article here, so keep reading.

After 16 years buried in the corporate zeitgeist, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christensen was unearthed for public critique in a June 23rd New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Lepore wrote that, “Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences and disruption seminars.” Unimpressed with the craze, she concludes that disruption is “not a law of nature… It makes a very poor prophet.”

If I agree with Lepore’s criticism of Christensen, it’s not because of his cherry-picked case studies — after all, she commits similar selection-bias in her counter-narrative — but because she points out that, as is the case with so many crazes, innovation’s popularity has degraded its meaning. It seems that innovation today is often confused with ideation, with the expectation that throwing smarter, younger ideas (and their associated interns) at an expensive problem will somehow make the costs of change disappear. This may be one part of innovation, but it is far from the entire process.

Over the past few months I’ve been applying formal business school lessons on disruptive innovation — in addition to a few slick net-present value calculations — as an Alcoa Fellow at Greenovate Boston, a community-based movement to reduce Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions. My fellow MBA partner-in-crime and I have been tasked with increasing Boston’s commercial recycling rate through an “innovative pilot program:” recycling co-ops. The kernel of this idea, which is new to the recycling world, is that small businesses can band together, combine waste streams and save money on their waste management contracts while saving the planet.

To start, we dutifully pounded the pavement: We spoke to cantankerous fish mongers and flighty boutique owners; we sweated through door-to-door tours of financial corridor lunch spots; we paraded through stakeholder offices, including the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, where we were politely alerted that a co-op arrangement would create illegal versions of otherwise highly regulated municipal solid waste transfer stations.



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The Search for Sustainable Conservation Finance in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

by Benjamin Dair Rothfuss

This summer in Vietnam, I quickly learned to introduce my work in the Mekong Delta as simply “protecting nature with WWF.” Everyone, from my expat roommates in Ho Chi Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 10.40.41 AMMinh City to the chatty locals at the pho stand in our alley, smiled in recognition of the panda logo. Explaining my full assignment was more of a commitment, often taking half the evening and a lot of cold Bia Saigon. This blog is a brief snapshot of that work.

I came to the Delta as a summer intern at WWF-Vietnam under a joint program organized by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) and WWF’s Asia Pacific Growth Strategy. Despite mounting threats to species and habitat, traditional support from donors and governments is not enough to fund critical conservation projects. As a result, organizations like WWF need innovative strategies to engage citizens and businesses to close the gap. The upcoming article by my colleague Renzo Castro-Mendoza goes into more detail about how the Asia Pacific Growth Strategy strengthens the broader organization. In contrast, my assignment with the Mekong Delta Office was directly tied to local conservation initiatives.

WWF’s main environmental priorities in the Delta today are conserving the remaining populations of water birds, restoring wetlands, and limiting the environmental impact of commodity production. The Delta spans 15,000 square miles and has been transformed into one of the world’s leading exporters of rice, fruit, catfish, and shrimp. Over the past few centuries, inland freshwater wet meadows and flooded forests were replaced by intensive paddy rice cultivation. In the past several decades, mangrove forests in brackish coastal waters were cleared alarmingly quickly for shrimp aquaculture.

From the outset, two different approaches — ecosystem services valuation and sustainability certification — seemed particularly well suited to improving conservation outcomes in the Delta. Collaborating with the WWF-Danube Carpathian Program Office in Bulgaria and WWF-Green Economy Technical Advisor in Cambodia, our team in Ho Chi Minh City relied on fast internet and savvy teleconferencing. We first reviewed past research on ecological pressures, and then drafted conservation finance strategies to be designed and implemented in the Delta. WWF-Vietnam staff as a whole welcomed me warmly, generously sharing their professional time, personal insights, and favorite spots to eat. Conversations in the field showed the way forward.

The office demonstrated how successful restoration projects can work in Vietnam by sending me into the Delta’s northeastern Dong Thap Province on my very first weekend. Tram Chim National Park was recognized as a Ramsar wetland of international importance in 2012. Tram Chim’s 7,500 hectares constitute one of the last fragments of the Plain of Reeds, a seasonally flooded meadow and forest ecosystem. WWF has worked with park authorities since 2008 to restore hydrological flows and improve the habitat for over 230 bird and 130 fish species. We also saw water buffalo in the park that staff explained were grazed along the park edges according to traditional use rights.

The initial restoration work was funded in part through WWF’s global partnership with Coca Cola. Between 2008 and 2012, Coca Cola contributed directly to WWF’s conservation work in the Delta. During my visit, I saw the growing local interest in corporate social responsibility evidenced by a group of volunteers from HSBC. We joined the thirty young professionals to learn about park history while cutting out the invasive Mimosa pilgra with machetes. A small fleet of boats piloted by the park staff enables these kinds of service-learning trips and promises to draw adventurous urbanites on weekend birding expeditions. I think that a user survey would help to quantify the park’s aesthetic and recreational values. This could demonstrate the returns from investing in ecosystem services and the benefit of replicating such restoration projects across the Delta.

The highlight of my summer was a workshop that convened WWF staff from the Greater Mekong to brainstorm frameworks connecting users and providers of ecosystem services in the Delta. After weeks of research, our efforts sparked a whole day of internal discussions rather than ending up as an unread report. Future work could potentially build on WWF’s existing relationships to quantify farmers’ use of clean water provisioned by the river. Take, for instance, the work of WWF’s Can Tho City staff, who partner with local Pangasius catfish farmers and aquaculture shrimp producers to streamline their production practices and achieve Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification.

Like its early work with the Forest Stewardship Council, WWF led the creation of the ASC standard through a series of Aquaculture Dialogues in 2008. ASC ensures environmental and social safeguards on the farm and strict chain-of-custody tracking in the processing facility. Overall supply chain sustainability is the ultimate goal. It’s a quickly growing brand and 2014 will mark the certification of the first ASC shrimp in Vietnam. When we toured a certified Pangasius catfish farm in Tra Vinh province, the manager complained that the standard had, so far, yielded more work instead of more pay. I suspect nonetheless that ASC will become a requirement of doing business as consumers demand stronger assurances of supply chain integrity and environmental quality.

During my last week in the office, we went to the Vietfish Fair at the HCMC Convention Center, where we attended WWF’s side event to connect producers and buyers of ASC-certified products. Discussion focused on how media reports of poor-quality Pangasius and the competition from other countries had shaken the market in recent years, and how ASC, or the government’s own VietGAP standards, might improve consumer confidence. Traversing the convention floor, we saw seemingly endless fish products—some, sadly, like shark’s fin destined for the luxury market. The difference between certified suppliers and conventional brands was a stark reminder of how consumers have power that reaches far up the food chain.

I think that the growth of CSR and sustainability certification is likely to motivate a new class of payment for ecosystem services (PES) based in shared value and good relationships rather than fees and formal contracts. Experience has shown that PES programs are only feasible where buyers recognize the benefits of public goods and are willing to compensate land managers for improved practices. As WWF moves ahead with its work, I look forward to seeing what form of conservation finance is most successful for protecting biodiversity, environmental quality, and sustainable livelihoods in the Mekong Delta.

Benjamin Dair Rothfuss is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research looks at how to use environmental economics to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of conservation projects. Ben enjoys outdoor adventures, farmers markets, and playing the cello.

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Tips from the Field: A Survival Guide for Sustainability Professionals

Last Monday, CBEY and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development hosted a conversation on how MBA programs might train future sustainability professionals. The event was held in conjunction with the School of Management’s Global Faculty Network Week on Sustainability Leadership and moderated by Professor Brad Gentry. Three seasoned panelists, before a crowd of global business school professors and administrators, as well as a smattering of budding MBAs, shared their wisdom from years of experience in sustainability leadership roles.

Dr. Terry Yosie, President and CEO of the World Environment Center cited the importance of Disruption; Christine Bader (SOM ’00), author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, called out her experience with Failure; and Kevin Moss, Head of Net Good, BT, described for the audience the essential role of Resilience.

For future MBAs attending the panel in search of a concrete skillset, perhaps a few words to draw on for the next resume update, these ideas may have felt slightly abstract. But the discussion still offered inspiration for any emerging professional willing to take on the challenging frontier that sustainability presents.


Terry Yosie described this era as one “of unprecedented change.” Our world is increasingly connected, and with these connections comes complexity. A business is now forced to consider its impacts well beyond the scope of its balance sheet. The private sector hires social responsibility and sustainability professionals to help adapt to new standards. However, Yosie believes that both “the promise and the shortcoming” of the sustainability field is its ability to identify a system-level changer—a feat with great potential, but one that it has yet to accomplish. Someone, or some new idea, needs to emerge that will be disruptive enough to cause a momentous shift in the way we do business. Yosie suggested that MBA programs can foster this productive disruption by turning curricula away from the shareholder value model and toward a model that reconnects with companies’ corporate charters, which are often built upon a broad social purpose.


When Christine Bader reflects on her work trying to make BP a better global citizen, she sees failure. After years of heading innovative projects that helped BP tread more lightly in neighboring communities, Bader witnessed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and felt her efforts had been in vain. From this experience, and from exploring the work of her professional peers, Bader has maintained motivation by acknowledging that incremental change, though seemingly negligible to the outside world, often requires a tremendous amount of internal alignment. We must take heart that any work aimed at moving the needle is good work.

That said, there are identifiable tools that will make this kind of work more effective. For instance, the level at which sustainability is integrated into a corporation needs to be standardized; one way to do this is by developing a Universal Declaration of Corporate Social Responsibility, much like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which has acted as a guideline for corporations trying to attain an acceptable internal standard for the human impact of their operations.


Kevin Moss addressed a fear that many in the sustainability field are likely to face: how do you know if you are actually making the changes you set out to? Is your company instead treating you as a “pressure release valve” that allows it to go about business as usual under the banner of sustainability? According to Moss, in order to be a successful sustainability professional, you must have the resilience to address this constant challenge; this can require pushing hard—sometimes making your position an uncomfortable one to be in. Moss stressed that sustainability must come from a value-based belief in it, which needs to be integrated deep in a company, ideally by the individuals inside of it. Moss offered a nice bridge between the words of Yosie and Bader: until that deep, value-based integration happens, disruptive sustainability professionals are going to meet resistance to even incremental changes. They will need to be resilient to continue on their path.

Yosie, Bader, and Moss do not have easy jobs. They will be the first to admit that sustainability is hard, far from a fluffy field for the meek. The profession forces you to ride the pendulum between optimism and pessimism, and those who succeed learn to draw inspiration from both ends of the emotional spectrum.

A full recording of the panel discussion, “The Skills Needed to Lead on Sustainability at 2020,” can be viewed online here.

Sarah Bolthrunis is an MBA/MESc joint-degree student (‘16) at Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her academic and professional interests focus on coastal adaptation to climate change impacts. Specifically, her summer research is in assessing the economic risks faced by coastal energy infrastructure due to sea level rise and storm surge. In her free time, Sarah enjoys marathon training and vegan nutrition.

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Dare To Go Zero

The choice between filling the land with garbage, or “landfilling,” and recovering resources from our trash sounds like an easy one. A preference for resource recovery seems even more obvious given the land-deficient world we live in. But reality seldom favors the obvious. The city of Austin, Texas, where I’m working as an Alcoa Foundation fellow this summer, diverts only 31 percent of its waste, leaving 69 percent to be landfilled.

With urban landfills reaching capacity as quickly as they are—available landfills have declined from 5,812 in 1991 to 1,908 in 2011—waste disposal costs are exorbitant, and rising. This increase in landfilling costs is a bittersweet problem. On the one hand, people have to pay more to discard their waste, which is especially taxing in tough economic times. On the other hand, higher prices can serve as a motivation to move toward resource recovery as opposed to waste disposal.

Austin is an exception to the trend of rising prices. The city still experiences low landfilling costs that provide little incentive to move people towards recycling. In such a scenario, education and enforcement, in that order are the best bet for the city to shoot up its diversion rates. Because enforcement does not make sense until the message of recycling has reached people loudly and clearly, public outreach is a key underlying step. To this point, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), the waste management and resource recovery department of the city, has conducted a variety of outreach campaigns over the past five years, and especially since the 2011 adoption of its Zero Waste Master Plan. One of these campaigns is Dare To Go Zero—perhaps the most creative outreach and citizen engagement efforts around recycling devised by any municipality in the country.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 10.21.09 AMDare To Go Zero was a weekly reality TV show featured on Austin’s local channel 6 and on YouTube. Hosted by an ARR employee, the show aired for five weeks in the spring of 2011 and drew a wide audience—over 7,000 views on YouTube alone, and about 63,000 total online impressions. The show dared four Austin families to reduce their trash by diverting it to recycling and composting and, through this, strove to increase Austinites’ awareness about how to reach zero waste and avoid contamination of the recycling stream. Out of 52 applicants, eight families were chosen for an on camera audition, from which the final four participants were selected. Every episode included a “dare” that tested the families on their knowledge of waste reduction, recycling, and composting; the winning teams received a prize each week. The families also participated in weekly recycling and composting classes run by ARR that provided information about waste reduction. Each episode concluded with a weigh-in of the waste generated over the preceding week by each of the four families. At the end of the fifth episode, the family that reduced its waste by the largest percentage won a home improvement kit worth $2,000.

The efforts were recognized throughout the country and the Austin received appreciation emails and calls from several municipalities. Cities such as Irvine, CA and Ventura, CA wrote to ARR with queries to replicate the show in their municipalities. The International Association of Business Communicators awarded Dare To Go Zero the 2011 Silver Quill Award of Merit in the category of Social Responsibility.

Dare To Go Zero proved an excellent tool of community outreach with a potential to be replicated worldwide. It is one of the many measures adopted by the city to achieve its zero-waste goals and demonstrates an interesting lever of behavioral change. It also has the capacity to produce neighborhood recycling and composting mentors, with the families that participated serving as a kind of lighthouse to drive community-level recycling initiatives and mobilize the public.

This is a critical time, with municipalities around the country designing and implementing zero-waste goals. Theoretically, it may seem like a simple shift, but it is surprising how challenging correct recycling can be. Even with moves toward single stream recycling, and even given rising costs, the task of truly getting it right continues to be a burden. Public outreach and education is therefore imperative for cities aiming to bump up their diversion rates. One good approach may be for U.S. cities to dare to Dare to Go Zero.

Snigdha Garg is a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her studies focus on urban sustainability and resilience planning. This summer she is working with Austin Resource Recovery to improve the city’s recycling rate in accordance with their zero waste goals.

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