How She Leads: Cindy Drucker, Weber Shandwick

The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Cindy Drucker, Weber Shandwick

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Cindy Drucker, an early pioneer in green marketing and consumer product claims. 

Drucker's background and knowledge of sustainability are extensive and crosses all sectors, industries and critical topics of social and environmental responsibility. She has tackled such controversial projects as the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill and worked with the heads of top environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund. She is also active in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, The Sustainability Consortium and the sustainability committees of the Consumer Goods Forum and Grocery Manufacturers Association. Drucker recently took on a new role as one of the leaders of the Social Impact practice at Weber Shandwick.

In today’s interview, Albanese asks Drucker to explain how she’s navigated a dynamic and important field over the course of her 20-year career.

Maya Albanese: Was there an “Aha moment” that led you to become the expert in sustainability communications that you are today?

Cindy Drucker: It came back in 1991, when I was working for a manufacturer of consumer plastics that was sued by the Attorneys General Green Task Force – representing 11 states -- for marketing biodegradable trash bags. Although we were trying to do something sustainable, the plastics wouldn’t biodegrade in a landfill. Based on that experience, I became engaged with the development of the very first “green marketing guidelines” developed by the Federal Trade Commission and EPA. I then worked with the company to take our environmental initiatives in a new direction and introduced the nation’s first 100 percent recycled content plastic trash bags – which won awards for best environmental product as well as corporate environmental leadership awards. We thus became pioneers in “green marketing” as it was then called. So, even back 20 years ago, people were realizing that helping the environment could also mean good business.

MA: Which position that you have held was your favorite and why?

CD: I’d have to say my current position at Weber Shandwick. I’ve worked in the corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors as well as on numerous key issue areas such as recycling, waste, air quality, energy and climate change. This position allows me to utilize my 20 years of learning that matrix to help my clients advance sustainability and social responsibility.

MA: Which position was the most challenging, and what did you learn from it?

CD: My position as Global Head of Sustainability of SC Johnson, by the sheer fact that the sustainability issues facing large companies are so complex. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for companies. That position was a valuable experience since I have served as the sustainability lead within a global company and can appreciate firsthand the challenges and opportunities facing many of my clients.

MA: You have gone back to school a few times. How has each educational experience augmented your expertise? 

CD: I have a business undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and I spent time at London School of Economics abroad during my undergraduate studies. After undergraduate, I worked in the office of the Massachusetts Revenue Department. There is a case study at Harvard Business School now that covers how our office changed the face of the agency from a revenue collecting, compliance-driven focus to a customer service focused organization – a lesson that has been incredibly useful to me throughout my career. I then went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for my master’s in public policy degree to broaden my perspective about the intersection of policy, government and business. I think that combination of the two degrees and studying abroad widened the lens by which I learned to evaluate and view sustainability and social responsibility issues. 

MA: What advice would you give young professionals grappling with the decision over whether to go back to school?

CD: Don’t follow a straight line. In sustainability, it’s the zigs and zags that allow you to see all the angles. You need to have strong basic skills – analytics, writing, policy, and communication -- but then it’s a matter of how you apply those skills and become engaged in the important dialogue and cross-functional work. So, it has to be a combination of both work and education, not either/or. Sustainability is a matrix that requires a matrixed set of skills.

MA: Which sustainability issues are you most well-versed in at this point?

CD: I’ve had the opportunity to be at the front end of most issues at this point. For example, I’ve worked on the first green power purchasing programs, early “green product” development and marketing, the first green retail programs and some of the first climate change initiatives as well as recycling and waste programs. Companies aren’t “siloed” and I don’t think that people should be siloed either. All the issues are interconnected.

Photo of Cindy Drucker courtesy of Weber Shandwick

MA: What are a few of the key learnings you can share from having worked across sectors?

CD: I’ve really realized that where you stand depends on where you sit. It is very important to understand the diverse perspectives, and then find common ground between them. And that for the most part, the ultimate goals of a cleaner, safer, healthy, vibrant world and economy and a sustainable future is a shared value. So now, we’re seeing tremendous collaboration across sectors and stakeholders to work together more to reach these common goals.

MA: How would you respond to those who say “green marketing, you mean greenwashing?”

CD: It is important to put into historical context the origin of the idea of green marketing. Twenty years ago, products were in a green product aisle and were only marketed to a small niche of green consumers. Now, sustainable approaches regarding operations, sourcing and lifecycle assessment are being integrated into product development and throughout the product lifecycle and quickly becoming integrated into mainstream business. They’re not making green products in that original sense, it’s becoming more integrated into operations and being integrated into business models overall.

That said, it can be confusing for consumers and manufacturers alike that we now have somewhere near 350 eco-labels and seals out in the marketplace. Some of the business groups are addressing this by working to incorporate sustainability standards and goals into products – such as sustainably sourced and derived ingredients. 

There is also a need to increase transparency and traceability. Consumers are looking behind brands and want to see what the company that creates them stands for. Do they have a supplier code of conduct? Who are they buying from? Companies have a great opportunity now to communicate their value and connect to these consumers in new ways that can help advance a sustainable future. The trick is to be authentic and to develop initiatives and messaging in a way that consumers understand and know they can trust.

MA: What was your role in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

CD: My role on the Presidential Commission was Director of Public Engagement, which involved outreach and engagement of key stakeholders such as fishermen, environmental groups, industry organizations, and local, state and national officials. I also managed the Commission’s briefings and formal hearings and conducted the launch of the Commission’s final report to the President in the Gulf. It was really life-changing to hear the stories of the people in the Gulf. For them, it wasn’t just an oil spill. It was also the fear of losing their heritage and their livelihoods. For example, oyster fishermen were telling us how devastating it was that they might not be able to pass down their trade to their kids because of the spill’s impact.

MA: Which of the NGOs that you work with do you feel have been most effective in moving specific initiatives forward?

CD: It depends on the issue, timing and context. For example, I worked with a coalition of environmental groups, known as The Green Group, when I served as Senior Advisor to the President/CEO of World Wildlife Fund. Our efforts were designed to communicate the need to address climate change to the public and government leaders – but there is clearly still a lot of progress needed in that arena. I think there were times when NGOs were seen as being on the other side of the table from corporate America. Now, both sides see the need for true collaboration through alliances and integrated engagement in order to address the serious sustainability issues at hand. For example, partnerships where teams work together on projects -- like WWF and Coca-Cola, The Nature Conservancy and Dow, or EDF and Walmart – are tremendous examples of the kinds of collaborations we’re now seeing. And all sides are realizing the strength and value of bringing diverse perspectives and expertise to the table for a 360-degree approach to problem solving.

MA: How did you ultimately decide that you’d like to work for a communications firm?

CD: My current position with the Social Impact team at Weber Shandwick allows me bring together all my skills, experience and interests. I’m working with an exciting team across a variety of nonprofit, corporate and foundation clients in diverse industries. And with offices in 81 countries, I’m able to keep a global understanding, which is crucial nowadays. It’s challenging and satisfying and the work keeps me motivated.  

MA: What are your main responsibilities in this role?

CD: As part of the global Social Impact team, I work with a broad portfolio of clients, giving them strategic guidance around sustainability and social responsibility regarding engagement and communications with stakeholders and developing initiatives that advance their dual sustainability/social responsibility and business goals in tandem.

MA: What are the main responsibilities of the Social Impact team?

CD: Social Impact has a global focus and is headquartered in Washington D.C. with an entire global network. We provide strategic counsel and guidance to a wide array of clients in many countries on both environmental and social issues. We have experts in every aspect of sustainability that we can tap to help depending on the client.

MA: What are some notable Social Impact clients?

CD: We work with many of the world’s best-known companies and brands as well as leading foundations and non-profits. For example, I’m working with Bank of America, which publicly announced its $50 billion environmental business initiative recently, and we also helped with the launch of the UN Foundation’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative to advance global energy efficiency, renewables and energy access. Our clients are doing amazing work and it’s thrilling to be a partner with them on the journey.

MA: Everyone is saying “green is dead" – so what is the next big thing in sustainability?

CD: The next goal will be full integration of sustainability into the business model. It should be a true part of a company’s financials, procurement policy, etc. How do you bring the value of the environment into your profit and loss statement? And, ultimately, how do you communicate and engage with key stakeholders about your progress and commitments to sustainability and social responsibility in a way that is authentic, transparent and trusted? 

MA: What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to a career like yours?

CD: You should combine following your passion with broadening your skills and expertise. You need a range of perspectives and you need the energy to make things happen. It’s also important to have a global focus. Travel! It’s not enough to think about what China is doing regarding sustainable palm oil from your office in the U.S., for example. Witness situations firsthand and you’ll gain a whole level of understanding that is important to bring into the conversation.