Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Meghan Chapple-Brown: I am the Director for the Office of Sustainability at George Washington University and also Senior Advisor on University Sustainability Initiatives, which means I work with GW’s Trustees, President, Provost, Treasurer, faculty, students, and staff in Facilities, Procurement, Investment, and Development to make GW a leader in sustainability. I launched the sustainability initiative at GW in 2009. I have the privilege of partnering with global corporations, small business, local and global NGOs, and local and federal governments to support the efforts at GW. I also teach Strategies for Sustainable Enterprise to MBAs at the GW School of Business.
Leading sustainability in an academic setting has allowed me to draw on my experience from various other sectors. While at SustainAbility, I was a strategy advisor to F500 companies. I learned a great deal about organizational change, market innovation and stakeholder engagement while working on projects for Darden Ford, Nike, Wal-Mart, Eli Lilly, and others. In the early 2000’s I worked at World Resources Institute and published Beyond Grey Pinstripes – the first ranking of business schools on social and environmental responsibility. While at WRI I worked with business schools around the world, especially in Latin America with faculty from Chile, Brazil, Peru, Argentina. All of that experience was great training for leading the strategy and implementation of sustainability at GW.
Most significant, though, was my work right out of college. In the ‘90’s I started out in Americorps working in community development on the South Side of Chicago. Back before “sustainability” was a field, I built community gardens and started community-based recycling programs in public housing in some of the poorest areas of our country. The intent was to address poverty and provide job training, look past violence and provide a safe space for personal growth, and to build a sense of community, pride, and healthier living. Still today I think this was the most rigorous, yet rewarding part of my career thus far. It prepared me for the challenges I face in my work today by providing me with first-hand experience in personal humility and understanding.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
MCB: The vision for sustainability at GW is to create natural resource systems for now and the future that are healthy and thriving for all. The words “healthy and thriving” are essential to the vision in that they depict a dynamic system that is regenerative and resilient. The words “for all” intend to address human equity such that our efforts benefit people across economic, social, and generational divides. In my experience at GW, the vision statement gives us an idea for a desired state that sets the upper target for our decisions. Believe me, we are not “there” yet, but to strive for something while also dealing with the current reality leads to solutions and resources that are better than I could have imagined.
For example, when I was invited to start the Office of Sustainability at GW, the university was listed by the Sierra Club as “one of the five (universities) that fail.” The university’s recycling program was limping along. The idea of LEED buildings was still met with skepticism. And there were disparate academic programs and researchers across the ten schools. Now we have a comprehensive strategy for sustainability with an ecosystem services approach, GW Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy. Internal and external stakeholders gave input to the strategy, and its goals and targets. GW is ramping up implementation with partners. We are designing a program to reach zero waste that involves reclaiming materials at student move-out, furniture reuse, construction waste, e-waste, compost, and recycling of disposables. We have five LEED gold buildings on campus, and eight more in the pipeline. And we have started a program to retrofit old buildings for energy and water efficiency and high tech management that is saving the university millions of dollars.
While greening our campus and business operations is important, I believe higher education can have a wider impact by leveraging its strengths in teaching, research, and outreach, and integrating sustainable thinking into the core mission of the university. This is similar to a company integrating sustainability into its core business offerings. When students have the skills, faculty are asking the research questions, and the university is sharing its knowledge to address issues such as climate change, water scarcity, and human well-being, then we are on the right track.
Over the last year, GW’s Provost Steve Lerman put out A Strategic Plan for the Third Century of the George Washington University. It reflects GW’s commitment to sustainability that is espoused by leaders from the GW Board of Trustees, the Deans Council, and faculty in our ten schools. And on the ground, an interdisciplinary team of faculty have launched as university-wide Minor in Sustainability for undergraduates in any school. The minor draws on more than 100 courses across campus. Already about ninety students have declared a Minor in Sustainability. As an indication of how GW is using the resources in Washington DC to reach out to federal policy makers and agency leaders, you can take a look at GW’s media project Planet Forward and the recent summit on Feeding the Planet.
While we still have work to do, GW has a core contingency that understands that long term societal value is important to business decisions and academic pursuits.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
MCB: There are a number of people from whom I was fortunate enough to learn, including Kenn Dunn, Leif Elsmo, First Lady Michelle Obama, Stu Hart, Rick Bunch, Tom Gladwin, Kelly McElhaney, Tim Fort, Mark Milstein, Lew Rumford, and Debra Rowe, to name a few.
The most influential person was Dave Berdish. I first met Dave when he was giving a guest lecture in my MBA class at Michigan with Professor Kelly McElhaney. Dave was a third generation Ford employee and had rust in his blood. I grew up in a recovering rust belt town on the shores of Lake Erie, where in addition to the steel and chemical industry, a Ford Assembly Plant had been a key employer. I had witnessed the devastation of industrial waste and then the ensuing downsizing on our community. Poverty and toxicity rates were both high in Lorain, Ohio, and not surprisingly, people were struggling to thrive. In his lecture, Dave talked about social justice and the role of business in making a difference. I was inspired and knew I had a lot to learn from Dave. Sure enough, as his intern, teaching assistant, and then as his consultant, I had many opportunities to learn from Dave about organizational change, human rights, and systems thinking for sustainability. Dave displays an incredible amount of passion for the vision, yet is resilient in spite of never ending challenges. He provides me with a role model in that regard. And most importantly, Dave has taught me to embody humility in my sustainability endeavors such that I move forward with inquiry.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
MCB: The beloved, late Jane Pratt (former director of the Mountain Institute and a trailblazer for women in the professional sustainability world) was a dear mentor of mine. I will be forever grateful for the generosity of her time and spirit in providing me with her insight and encouragement. When facing a frustrating situation, Jane advised me, “Use that rock as a tool to sharpen your knife.” Jane’s spirit lives on as I draw on that advice regularly. To me it means that I should take challenge, failure, and impediments as opportunities for learning. Jane helped me to see that apparent problems are actually opportunities to get beyond self-doubt and self-pity; that I can use problems to make myself a more effective agent of change. When I combine that lesson with the approach of humility taught to me by Dave Berdish, I can continue on my path with faith that while I do not have all the answers, solutions and opportunities beyond my current comprehension may very well emerge.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
MCB: Honestly, my most rewarding moments in this job are when I see people in different divisions across the university integrating sustainability into what we do. When the Facilities Director says he is most proud of his work on a campus-wide strategy to modernize buildings on our urban campus such that they are more cost, water, and energy efficient. When a Trustee says he read about climate change in the student paper and want to know how he can engage with students to discuss their concerns. When a development officer wants to meet with faculty to develop a proposal to a F500 company on how to affect the renewable energy market. When an economics professor wants to bring her expertise on poverty to bolster our work on creating more equitable and sustainable cities, including the District of Columbia. When a student wants to make a business case to the food trucks on our urban campus to reduce their energy use and packaging. When the office of procurement reaches out to offices around campus to transition from bottled water to in-line filtrations because they know it is more efficient both from a natural resource and a financial standpoint.
I envision each of these small actions as a spinning gear, and the cog catches another gear in the university machine to keep things humming on sustainability.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
MCB: The main challenge is that most decision makers in the public and private sector tend to focus on short term risks and long term fears. I would wish that social and environmental costs were incorporated into business decision making processes, that we had a culture that encourages aspirational visioning and a system that rewards the journey towards our collective vision for a better world, not just immediate outcomes. Then I think we would see more outcomes around long term shared value, such that our decisions today benefit everyone across economic, racial, ethnic, and generational divides long into the future.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
MCB: On my perfect day, I would wake refreshed and healthy, hit the pool and swim for a good hour. Then I would come home to my daughter, and we would choose to go for a walk in Rock Creek Park, go sailing on the Chesapeake Bay or canoeing on the Anacostia River near our home. We would then have a late afternoon picnic with friends and family that goes well into the evening, complete with a bonfire. During that time we would have meaningful conversations about life, social issues, and spirituality…not to mention a good dose of humor and lots of laughter.
Most importantly, I would be outside with loved ones, away from my phone and computer, engaged in authentic conversation and activities.