How She Leads

How She Leads: Beth Stevens, Disney

Beth Stevens, Disney
"If you tell enough stories, you're going to eventually connect with enough people," says Beth Stevens.

The Walt Disney Company knows how to sell cuteness. The company has a cute term, "environmentality," for its sustainability efforts. The storytelling juggernaut even calls its theme park employees "cast members." Yet Disney has come a long way since Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons.

It is the world’s second largest big media company by revenue, churning out movies, TV series, toys, clothes and other consumer products, websites and apps — not to mention theme parks.

Beth Stevens, senior VP of environmental affairs at Disney Worldwide Services, is in charge of making strides in the direction of sustainability. How does the iconic brand not only tell an engaging sustainability story but walk the talk?

Disney's sustainability goals are serious. It aims to halve its emissions by 2020 from 2012 levels. It signed on to the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge ahead of COP21 and the Paris Agreement. It even maintains an internal carbon price. Stevens sees all this as a natural expression of the company's culture.

Elsa Wenzel: What does sustainability mean to Disney?

Beth Stevens: On the environmental stewardship side, our focus is really on using our resources wisely and protecting the planet as we operate and grow our business. And we do this through a company-wide focus on reducing emissions, reducing waste and conserving water.

And on the nature conservation side — actually, I'm very excited because the Disney Conservation Fund is about to celebrate 20 years of protecting wildlife and wild places and connecting kids with nature to help kids — to help us develop the next generation of environmental stewards.

Wenzel: Do you find Disney trying to educate the public about its sustainability efforts ... as people may not think of it as being about nature or conservation?

Stevens: We have at Disney a really long legacy of caring about nature and telling stories about nature. And this honestly goes all the way back to Walt himself. And if you think about it, the very first nature documentaries were the True-Life Adventures that Walt produced.

And since that time, boy, think about all the different ways that nature has really been the center of our storytelling, whether it's "The Lion King" or Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park or the newest — sort of the contemporary version of the True-Life Adventures, which is now our new Disneynature film label.

So, in every one of those cases I think that our approach to inspiring people to care about nature is to immerse them in these wonderful stories and inspire them to care. So, that's really what we've been doing for a long time.

Wenzel: Do you have any lessons for what it takes to tell a great sustainability story?

Stevens: I think what I would say is that first of all, people just love to hear real stories from nature. So, it's great to tell stories about the plight of different animals and about animals. ... It's also great to always have a way that people can take action after they hear the story.

When it comes to storytelling you want to capture people's hearts first and get them to connect with an animal or an individual. And then, once you've captured their hearts, and they're starting to care a little bit, then you can give them an action or two, a way that they can get involved.

Wenzel: A lot of people credit movies like "Bambi" with [inspiring] a lot of the environmental activism that happened with the baby boomer generation. Do you have any thoughts about specific Disney stories that have [influenced] various generations?

Stevens: There are a lot of Disney stories. Whether it's through our movies or on TV — we've got a new, a wonderful new show on Disney Channel called "The Lion Guard" for younger, younger kids — or whether it's through our theme parks or through the Disney Conservation Fund and hearing the stories of what these amazing people around the world are doing to protect wildlife and wild places ... different stories connect with different people.

And I think that for us ... if you tell enough stories, you're going to eventually connect with enough people. And it's probably different for everybody.

Crested caracara bird at the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Florida
The Nature Conservancy
<p>A threatened crested caracara falcon at the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Florida.</p>

Wenzel: What can you tell me about Disney's view of the Paris Agreement and the impact of the U.N. climate talks?

Stevens: So, the U.N. climate talks totally align with our focus on addressing our own emissions. And this is something that we committed to, actually, in 2009. We have a long-term goal of achieving zero net emissions with a target of reducing our emissions by 50 percent by 2020 from 2012 levels.

And we actually demonstrated this ongoing commitment to doing our part by signing the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge just prior to Paris. We've been committed to this since 2009 and we're still committed to it.

Wenzel: And Disney has had an internal carbon price for a while as well?

Stevens: Yeah, absolutely. As part of our efforts to get to zero net emissions, we measure our direct and our indirect emissions, and then each business segment is charged for its emissions. ... And these dollars are then used to invest in carbon offsets.

We have chosen to look to nature as part of the solution to climate change, and so we have chosen to invest the majority of these dollars into forest carbon projects. So, these can be avoided deforestation or REDD+ projects. They can be improved forest management projects. Or, they can be reforestation projects. And all of those meet the highest levels of validation.

Wenzel: What are you most proud of?

Stevens: All of this work that we all do really only works if you create a culture. And I'm very, very proud of the culture of "environmentality" that we have throughout Disney.

It includes encouraging our fellow cast members and employees to do things like conserve fuel and electricity, use water and paper responsibility and reduce the waste they generate. All of that is part of environmentality. ... It's about thinking and acting with the environment in mind in everything you do.

Wenzel: What have been some of the biggest surprises in your work recently? 

Stevens: At Disney we're in so many diverse businesses. Think about it: We create movies, we have TV networks, we have theme parks, we have consumer products. And so, there isn't any one single answer on how to reduce our footprint.

I'm continually surprised by the creativity of our different businesses in coming up with ideas to reduce their environmental impact and conserve nature in ways that are most meaningful to them.

So, most recently — or, fairly recently, for example, Walt Disney World is now running its entire fleet of buses on R50 renewable diesel. ... They wanted to reduce their emissions and they found a creative way and a more sustainable way to do it.

Wenzel: What does your team look like? How many people are you working with directly? What are you leading? Which divisions are you involved with?

Stevens: I have a corporate team, and our team works with all of the businesses across the company. And what we do is we measure our footprint and we report out to all of the businesses on how we're tracking against our goals and targets.

We also help to create any guidelines or policies that will enable the businesses to make environmentally responsible decisions. And then, we also do a lot of work around employee programs and how we communicate with employees and commuter assistance programs.

Wenzel: Do you still have Green Teams?

Stevens: They're the ones who help us recognize champions across the company. ... And they're the ones who will come up with the great stories that we should be sharing across the company because those are motivating and inspiring to everyone around the company.


Wenzel: One topic that our readers are always interested in is employee engagement and how to keep people involved or get them involved in the first place. Do you have any insights to share?

Stevens: I would say that this is something that we focus on year-round, but in the month of April  which we don't just celebrate Earth Day here; we celebrate Earth Month — that we really bring focus and attention to the great work that the company is doing, to highlight stories of what individual cast members and employees are doing in their businesses, to hold events and fairs to give everybody a chance to learn more. We do webinars during the month. We do campaigns. ... It's like your environmentality booster shot.

Wenzel: With so many different moving parts at Disney, what happens when Disney makes an acquisition — like Lucasfilm — in terms of sustainability?

Stevens: They become part of the company. And so, we're always sharing best practices; that's always the best first step. And then, eventually, everybody is adopting the company-wide practices. We learn from them; they learn from us.

Wenzel: How does Disney continue to work with external partners — like, say, the Nature Conservancy or other groups like Conservation International, other NGOs?

Stevens: There's two with whom we have very longstanding relationships, Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy. Conservation International's Russ Mittermeier was on our Disney's Animal Kingdom advisory board that started back in the '90s when we were just hatching this idea of building a Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park.

And then, most recently, we have worked very closely with Conservation International to develop a very successful REDD+ project in Peru.

And then, the Nature Conservancy — our relationship with them goes back decades as well. In fact, they own and operate the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Florida, and they are also very key partners for us in developing forest carbon projects around the world.

Wenzel: Are there new areas of stewardship that are emerging that you find pretty interesting?

Stevens: In a big organization, when you stay consistent like that it gives time for there to be creative thinking and innovation. ... We are rock solid, locked on focusing on reducing our emissions and waste and conserving water.

A 360-degree view of aquariums at Disney World
Disney World
<p>A 360-degree aquarium view at Disney World's EPCOT exhibit, "The Seas with Nemo and Friends."</p>

When it comes to nature conservation, as we look to the future and as we celebrate 20 years of the Disney Conservation Fund, we are focusing the efforts of the fund to reverse the decline of 10 threatened animal groups and to increase the time that kids spend in nature.

I always say to everybody, "Caring about nature starts with spending time in nature." And it's really critical to developing the next generation of environmental stewards.

Wenzel: How does Disney foster and encourage children spending time in nature?

Stevens: Since 2012 we have helped more than 50 million kids and families connect with nature. And we do that both through creating programs in our own theme parks, creating experiences in our own theme parks and through providing grants to organizations that will help to create experiences to connect kids with nature.

We also focus a lot on removing the barriers to kids connecting with nature. ... As you find out that kids are spending less and less time in nature, it's so important for caregivers to actually have tools and resources.

At Disney's Animal Kingdom, there are specific experiences at the Kilimanjaro Safari Ride and specific experiences at Rafiki's Planet Watch. We create a lot of one-on-one interactions with marine life at The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT. And we've got a number of resorts that are in beautiful, natural areas.

Disneynature film titles
<p>Some of the Disneynature film titles.</p>

And then, I was talking about removing barriers. I'll give you an example of a great program that the Disney Conservation Fund has been funding, through the National Park Foundation.

They have a program called Open Outdoors for Kids that helps gets kids into national parks. We're actually paying for buses to transport kids to national parks. These are kids who would otherwise never visit a national park that's actually right in their area. So, that's an example of a barrier, and that's something that we feel is really, really important.

And then, of course, we've got our Disneynature films. And those are like immersive experiences that kind of transport you to Africa with chimpanzees or African cats, or take you to Sri Lanka with monkeys.

Wenzel: What's the size of Disney's support for Open Outdoors for Kids?

Stevens: I can tell you that what our funds are doing are connecting half a million kids with national park experiences.

Wenzel: And you have a long background relating to working with animals and natural preservation, is that right?

Stevens: Yes, I do happen to have a particular passion for animals — always have. Studied animal behavior for my Ph.D. and started my career working in zoos: I started working at the National Zoo. I was really excited about the role that zoos play in conservation, and that's what led me to be part of the opening team at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Wenzel: What advice can you share for somebody who hopes to be an emerging leader in corporate sustainability?

Stevens: When I think about what ingredients go into this recipe here, I think that experience working in a business is really important, so that you understand what it takes to be part of making a business successful. And that combined with a passion for sustainability. And then, I think a graduate degree in either business or environmental management.

Wenzel: Do you think Disney gets a bad reputation in some ways from ... people who see things like resorts or cruises as inherently harmful? Are there some myths to debunk?

Stevens: Let me give you an example. I mean, we're very, very thoughtful when we go to develop any new property. Look at the Walt Disney World property in Florida. Fifty percent of that property is set aside as a conservation area, which is fantastic.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve, which is owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy, is actually a really wonderful example of how when we were developing a theme park there are different ways to mitigate wetlands. ... We purchased several thousand acres right at the headwaters of the Everglades and turned that into the Disney Wilderness Preserve. That attracted some other investments so that we could really make an impact on the Central Florida watershed in a huge way.