Innovations That Matter

Wise Words with Kate Williams

Nonprofit & Social Cause

We talk to Kate Williams, CEO of 1% for the Planet.

Preserving the environment is one of the biggest challenges we face today. 2015 was the hottest year on record, and we saw world leaders gather for the COP21 climate talks in Paris, to address the pressing issue of climate change. Regular readers of Springwise will know that we often write about innovations that look at ways of improving sustainability, and this is because we believe businesses play a big part in driving positive environmental change.

Setting an example of a successful social enterprise is Patagonia. With corporate responsibility at the core of their business, they promote safe labour practices and strive to cause no unnecessary harm to the planet. Since 1985, they have even pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. In 2002, founder Yvon Chouinard, along with Craig Matthews, created the non-profit 1% For the Planet, to encourage other businesses to do the same.

1% for the Planet is an alliance of businesses that understand the necessity of protecting the natural environment, and Springwise is proud to be a part of this alliance. Our whole team will work together to decide on a UK charity to contribute to in the coming months, so watch this space.

In the meantime, we caught up with Kate Williams, the CEO of 1% for the Planet, for a very special Wise Words.

1. How did you first start working with 1% for the Planet?

I was the Executive Director of another non-profit, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, also based in Vermont. After a decade in that role, I was ready for a change. The opportunity emerged for me to fill a new position at 1% for the Planet — that of Director of Partnerships. I jumped at the chance and filled that role for a year, really enjoying the opportunity to develop the ways in which our model and our network can be organised to create positive results. A year later I was given the opportunity to serve as CEO.

2. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work for 1% for the Planet?

I have worked in the environmental field for my entire professional career. I started out as an outdoor educator, teaching students in mountain environments and feeling both inspired by the incredible classrooms I was fortunate to use, and aware that they were protected and accessible because of the hard work of the people who came before me.

After about a decade in the outdoor education field, I moved into the environmental non-profit arena, focusing primarily on the connection between land and people. During this time, I also invested in volunteer roles, both as elected official in my town and as a board member at the National Outdoor Leadership School. All of this experience taught me that most environmental issues are complex and human, and that all positive results require collaboration, passion, and humility. And money and time as well, of course.

When I had the opportunity to move to 1% for the Planet, I was thrilled to have the chance to engage more business support in stewarding the ecosystems that will sustain any long-term, future economy. So, my past experiences taught me not only how the work of caring for the planet can be done, but also how much need there is for greater support and engagement in this work.

3. Could you share a bit about your childhood or college days, and how you first became interested in sustainability?

While I grew up essentially in the city of Boston, my parents made sure that our family was very connected to the outdoors. We had a cabin on a lake in Maine where I spent most of my childhood summers, and we would also go there in the winter — skiing in, heating the place with the wood stove, and chopping a hole in the ice to get water. I’m sure I complained as a kid, but I also loved it, and I went on to spend a month in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) after I graduated from high school, and knew in that moment that I had found my passion. I taught for NOLS for a few summers during college and shortly after, and that was basically when the environmentally-oriented trajectory of my career was set.

4. Through your work, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in businesses towards positive change? Can you think of any examples?

I don’t think I’ve been at 1% for the Planet, working with businesses, long enough to see a paradigm shift. I can say, however, that I’m heartened and inspired on a regular basis by the companies who choose to make this significant commitment and the core reason they express for doing so: it’s the right thing to do.

And what is exciting is that consumers increasingly think so too — I think that that’s where a paradigm shift may also be happening. Consumers want to purchase products from companies that have a purpose, and the concept that purchases also represent an investment in solving critical environmental issues is quite compelling. So, I think that both businesses and consumers are shifting together and we may just be beginning to see the power in this.

One example that comes to mind is our member company Finlandia Vodka. We’ve worked closely with them to develop non-profit partners that support their focal issue of clean water. They have done a great job of activating with these partners in particular markets. What they have found in only their first year with 1% for the Planet, is that in the markets in which they’re activated, their sales have increased by 7%. In their other markets, sales decreased by 2%. This really illustrates that giving back in smart, brand-aligned ways, is not only good for the planet, but also a clever business move.

5. What has been your proudest 1% for the Planet moment thus far?

Our central focus since I became CEO has been on developing a new strategic plan for 2016-2020. I’m most proud of the work we have done to re-focus our model on the powerful relationship between our companies and non-profits, and the incredible results that they can achieve together, both for the planet and for business. I’m also really proud of our staff — or really it’s more that I’m honoured that I get to work with them. They are smart and passionate and care deeply about the members and partners in our network, and the beautiful planet we are stewarding together.

6. How do you unwind or relax when not working on 1% for the Planet?

My two teenage children and my husband are my favourite people, and I love spending time with them. I’m also a runner and anytime I can get outside to run or hike, I’m better for it.

7. What’s motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

My staff and our network — there are so many amazing people working so hard. I’m always inspired by them, and feel an obligation to give my best.

8. Can you describe a typical working day?

Wait, there’s a typical working day?? I travel quite a bit, so in some ways that is typical. When I am on the road I usually have a full slate of meetings with member companies, non-profit partners, potential new members, and/or donors. Since I’m still relatively new in my role, I try to listen and learn a lot — what can we do better, what is working, how can we provide greater value, etc. When I’m not travelling, I spend my days at our office in Burlington, VT. I mostly meet with staff, both to contribute to specific projects, but also to help us develop a culture and capacity that will enable us to grow and achieve the best results.

9. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

I’m an early morning riser, and almost always exercise first thing, even if that means running in the dark with a headlamp. This is for body and spirit, as running is when my thoughts untangle and get organised — always a great way to start the day. And family dinners are another routine — my daughter is a great cook, so many weeknights I get to come home to a simple but lovely meal that she has prepared. We may just eat around the counter, or if I’m late I’ll eat leftovers and visit, but that connection to the family is always good.

10. What book are you reading, or writing now?

I’m a big fan of novels, but read both fiction and non-fiction pretty widely. Right now I’m reading a book of essays called The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan, and recent books that have really stuck with me are Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande and This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein.

11. What do you believe are the most pressing environmental issues today?

I’m always a bit reluctant to pick the “most important” issue, because really every way in which we can care better for our planet has to be considered important. That’s said, I’d have to go with Climate Change — in the sense of global urgency and impact. I think we access that issue locally through more concrete issues like how we source our energy, how we manage food waste, etc., which is important, because the issue can feel so big and overwhelming.

12. Where do you see 1% for the Planet in five years, and how will you get there?

I see us coordinating a powerful movement of businesses and non-profits that work together in smart and intentional ways to create real positive change. We are creating a new program area called Strategic Impact Advising that builds on the partnership development that we’ve been doing for years, but will include significant improvements in how we work with our non-profits, how we orient toward key issues, and how we support our member companies in developing giving strategies that are most effective in terms of positive environmental impact, brand alignment, and coordination with business objectives.

13. If you weren’t working for 1% for the Planet, what would you be doing?

Good question. I suspect playing some sort of leadership role in the environmental community.

14. Do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs in the sustainability world?

Make sure you keep your passion alive, and also make sure you consider all partners, even the most unlikely. The work that we need to do to develop a smarter and more sustainable economy is going to take creative and complex thinking that crosses traditional boundaries. Be brave and bring a smile to it.

Thanks Kate!

You can read more about 1% for the Planet here.