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The Inside View

10 Minutes with Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund

The nonprofit leader reveals the secret to remaining innovative, 33 years in.

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Fred Krupp, President, Environmental Defense Fund. I caught up with Fred just after EDF’s 50th anniversary — and Fred’s 33rd year as head of EDF.

Bob Langert: How have you stayed fresh and innovative for over three decades?

Fred Krupp: I just remain hopeful that if we work at it, we can solve problems. It probably sounds corny, but the people I get to work with every day are incredibly uplifting, inspiring. They're passionate; they're perseverant.

The people that I get to partner with, whether they're in companies or donors and supporters … it's an incredible time. It just makes me feel good that so many people want to join together and focus on solutions. That's been the driving force behind everything we've done, to focus on solutions and be innovative and flexible in our approach to getting environmental progress.

Langert: You mentioned people. What's your magic in figuring out how to hire such good and effective people?

Krupp: I have always looked for people that are constructive and optimistic. Not everyone in this world is, especially people who are able to see how severe the environmental challenges are.

It's easy to be pessimistic, or even cynical. But I've looked for people who are optimistic, because that allows a certain creativity and imagination to flow that I think has helped EDF.

It's easy to be pessimistic, or even cynical. But I've looked for people who are optimistic, because that allows a certain creativity and imagination to flow.
Langert: So, when something doesn't work and your first or two tries fail, how do you maintain this optimistic attitude that you have?

Krupp: When things are going wrong, the first thing we look to do is see if there is something the rest of the organization can do. Can I make a phone call? Can a trustee open a door? Do we need a slight shift in the strategy? Can we come up with a thought to get past the impasse?

Sometimes we just say, "You know what? On that particular effort, we're gonna completely change course and stop doing that." We try not to spend good money after bad, or spin our wheels on things where we don't have a credible theory of change that we can believe in.

Langert: In the 1980s, you ushered in what you have called "the third wave" of environmentalism — in short, collaboration with corporations. What is your scorecard on this approach?

Krupp: Back when I first wrote about it, I recognized that behind the problems that threaten big environmental harm, there were nearly always legitimate social needs. And that the long-term solutions lied in finding alternative ways to meet those underlying needs. So, a big part of finding those solutions has been harnessing market forces and working with business instead of being at odds. This was unorthodox, even heretical at the beginning.

As you know, Bob, when EDF first partnered with McDonald's, both our organizations took a lot of heat. Yet 30 years later, many other NGOs apply these principles in their work. I'm proud we continue to be a leader among them. We've gone from one-to-one corporate partnerships to building global collaborations across supply chains, activating networks of emerging corporate leaders through programs like Climate Corps. And we're not stopping there. We continue to evolve our approach.

Scorecard? I think on the one hand we've achieved a tremendous amount with this approach and, on the other hand, we need to think of new and bigger ways to ramp up the impact because these problems continue to be huge challenges.

Langert: It was heretical back then. Did you feel pressure from your peer group in the environmental community?

Krupp: There were definitely some tough questions asked by a couple of my trustees, and within the environmental community there were some tough things said. But it comes with the territory of working on big issues that your actions deserve to be scrutinized. So, it didn't particularly worry me or bother me that many of my peers and other environmental groups were skeptical at first. But what I soon came to understand is what environmentalists of all varieties want more than anything is results.

In 1990, when McDonald's announced it was not only getting rid of the clamshell to package its sandwiches, but also embarking on a multi-part program to drive down its solid waste, and when George H.W. Bush announced he was going to mandate a 50 percent cut in acid rain pollution using a market system, those results convinced a lot of people that they'd better give this new approach a second look.

The results were the best flak jacket that I could've ever been equipped with.

Langert: How would you compare and contrast the corporate leadership that you see today with the past?

Krupp: The bar for what it means to be a sustainability leader has been raised. It's no longer enough for a company simply to hoe its own garden. Companies now understand that they need to lead across industries, supply chains and, most importantly, lead on climate policy.

The bar for what it means to be a sustainability leader has been raised. It's no longer enough for a company simply to hoe its own garden.
Right now, 2017, the administration is selling a misguided idea of supporting outdated, dirty energy, and that's paving the way for China and India and the European Union to race ahead on the global environmental stage. And it's good to see that the U.S. business community isn't buying that. More than 365 businesses have publicly voiced their support for the Clean Power Plan. Fourteen hundred companies now have an internal price on carbon. Investors pumped out $67 billion into clean energy around the world in the third quarter of this year.

Wind investment reached $34 billion, even more than solar investment, which was $30 billion. So, it just shows you corporate support for clean energy has changed a lot since 1990.

Langert: Fill in the blank: I wish companies today would …

Krupp: … be as aggressive with their sustainability goals as they are with their business goals. I think there's room for companies to set kind of moon-shot goals, like Walmart's Project Gigaton.

Langert: All these years that you've led the organization — it must be hard to pick out your most joyous moments leading EDF?

Krupp: There’s been a lot of happy moments, but I'd have to say it takes a lot to beat out having an audience with Pope Francis. It was one of the rare moments that crystallize your sense of purpose. I was invited to the Vatican along with a group of business leaders to discuss helping the world's poor. In my case, I focused on shielding impoverished communities from the worst impacts of climate change.

To be in a room with the pope, to be able to thank him for his leadership on climate, to feel a common bond with him, working to meet the challenges of climate change — well, to say it was inspiring, it would be a big understatement.

Langert: That sounds phenomenal. What is it that you are so glad that you've been able to achieve, and help lead over this long strong stretch?

Krupp: Being able to successfully tackle bigger goals. I've seen EDF grow from a small organization to an international force with wide-ranging networks of partners. And our staff has increased from just over 40 to more than 650. Our membership has expanded from 40,000 to over 2 million. We now have offices in China and Mexico and the U.K. And I think now we're able to take on work that has a scope and ambition once reserved for government agencies.

Because no longer can government alone reveal or choose to conceal serious pollution problems with all the sensors and data transparency and instant communications emerging today. The power to make the invisible visible is now in the hands of citizen scientists and groups like EDF that will hold governments accountable to act. And especially with our federal government stepping away from its responsibility to protect people's health and the environment, putting these new tools to work at a critical time. I'm proud we've embarked on that.

Langert: Do you think our culture is losing some of its ability to work together? is compromise a good thing or a bad thing in your mind?

Krupp: I think of EDF as being purposefully aimed at big, ambitious goals, and not compromising about obtaining those, but being creative and agile about how we accomplish those. Just last year, we worked with Sen. Jim Inhofe, perhaps the environmental community's most famous opponent in Congress, to pass a strong chemical safety law. It wouldn't have happened unless we worked with both political parties and negotiated in good faith with industry.

We've partnered with responsible energy companies to limit leaks of methane pollution. We're working with 30 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives interested in finding climate solutions. The work's valuable in and of itself, and it continues to build a foundation of trust that will allow more bipartisan progress when those opportunities arise. Because every major environmental law in American history has been passed with bipartisan support.

I still think environmental problems are solvable, and taking care of people and air and water pollution should be a common ground. But we absolutely have to get on with getting down to the business of finding those solutions.

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