WWF's Carter Roberts on Google, Coca-Cola, growing business appeal

Big Green

WWF's Carter Roberts on Google, Coca-Cola, growing business appeal

Gordon Murray for GreenBiz2015
World Wildlife Fund's Carter Roberts believes businesses need to set much more aggressive conservation goals.

“It’s hard to go anywhere in the world without running into the panda,” Carter Roberts said with a smile as we made pre-lunch small talk in the Arizona sunshine.

I’d just disclosed my decades-long membership to the non-governmental organization World Wildlife Fund, where Roberts serves as CEO. I'm one of more than 6 million individual members globally — and therein lies the allure for the roughly 70 big companies that work closely with the world’s largest conservation organization.

If Greenpeace’s role is galvanizing awareness about questionable environmental practices, WWF is the go-to ally for sustainable sourcing strategies that align with its conservation goals. Two big success stories: Coca-Cola's investment in water conservation, still the organization's biggest overall partnership, and McDonald’s foray into sustainable beef.

"We don’t just want to produce a big report and be done with it,” Roberts explained during our chat at the recent GreenBiz Forum 15 conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We will always go the extra mile to make sure companies can execute against their commitments.”

Bolstering business ties

WWF has courted the business community for more than a decade, even before Roberts joined the organization in 2004 after almost 15 years with The Nature Conservancy.

In those days, WWF’s partnership strategy was more haphazard. After surveying influential business leaders about their most pressing environmental concerns, WWF streamlined its focus. 

“You would have thought that climate change would have been the No. 1 issue that would have come up, but the things that were mentioned most often were food production, timber, pulp and paper,” Roberts said during a keynote interview at GreenBiz Forum.

“We knew that as much as we loved these places, as much we had a heritage of doing work in these places locally, that we were going to fail if we didn’t figure out how to work with companies and find a better way to meet the needs of people. Grow food differently, and timber, and pulp and paper and all the rest.”

WWF’s priorities are driven by developments that involve 15 of the world’s most important commodities, such as palm oil, beef, seafood, soy, cotton and sugar cane. It  assessed how consumption of these items threatened endangered habitats: cattle, for example, are linked closely to deforestation.

It then researched which of the world’s biggest companies could have the biggest positive or negative impact on future supplies, coming up with a list of about 100.

So far WWF’s partnership teams (including 60 people in Washington, D.C., and 300 globally) have inked relationships with about 70 of the bunch.

“What you learn in the midst of all that is that the world’s isn’t so neat and tidy,” Roberts told me over lunch. “If you see an opening, you’ve got to jump on it.”

In case you’re wondering, only 4 percent of WWF’s operating revenue in 2014 came from corporations: about $12.4 million. Individual donors contribute about 32 percent of its funds ($85.3 million) with the rest coming from government grants, foundations, and “in-kind and other” donations.

These are not partnerships in name only. WWF seeks alliances that “move the needle,” and Roberts encourages businesses to set big, seemingly impossible goals rather than incremental ones. That way, if they fall short, they still will have an opportunity to change the world.

“You should identify what issue you’re linked to, what commodity is big to you,” Roberts advised. “That’s where you can make the biggest difference. It’s not the easy stuff, necessarily, but it’s the stuff that’s intrinsic to you, to your reputation, to your business model. That’s where you need to go.”

The next frontier

Roberts’ early career experience at consumer products company Procter & Gamble (where he worked on brands including Gillette and Pringles) lends more credibility to his message.

His career switch into NGOs was inspired by his father, who set aside a career in sports medicine to create clinics around the world dedicated to treating crippled children. Roberts also has access to a 24/7 sounding board: his wife, Jackie, led NGO-corporate partnerships for the Environmental Defense Fund; she’s now chief sustainability officer at asset management firm Carlyle Group.  

One personal priority that will shape WWF’s evolving agenda: the role of technology in chronicling progress.

Both Google (represented on WWF’s board) and eBay, for example, are providing technology to provide more data about illegal poaching activity to customs and border agencies around the world.

What’s more, WWF is deeply involved with efforts to improve seafood traceability, and it is freeing up funds for testing new innovations. The organization’s Fuller Symposium in November will be given over to exploring the role of technology in scaling conservation — and in bringing the message to a much larger group of people.

“The time has come for consumers to play a much, much stronger role, and I think technology is going to be a huge part of that,” Roberts said.