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.
Suzanne Apple: I am Senior Vice President of Private Sector Engagement at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s leading conservation organization. I lead our corporate engagement with major U.S.-based companies and their supply chains to ensure that the natural resources and ecosystems which are essential to their operations are managed sustainably.
I joined WWF almost 11 years ago following more than 10 years at The Home Depot as Vice President of Community Affairs and Environmental Programs where I oversaw the company’s CSR and sustainability initiatives.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your organization?
SA: I think what has been most satisfying in my career is to have seen the conversation about sustainability evolve from the right thing to do, to a business imperative. Sustainability is now front and center on many boardroom agendas, becoming integrated into companies’ core business strategies. Previously, many companies saw the environment as something separate from their business, but they are beginning to see the bigger picture and now understand that responsible environmental practices are essential to the long-term viability of business and the license to operate.
I saw this firsthand at The Home Depot. In the early 90s, we began to take a close look at our sustainability strategy and one of the first steps we took was to better understand the company’s impact on the environment, looking across all categories of our business. I was proud to be part of the company’s announcement in 1999 of the first comprehensive wood purchasing policy in the North American home improvement sector, which was a huge first step towards supporting responsible forestry throughout the world. We were really ahead of the game, because even in the early 2000s, sustainability was in its infancy in most companies and sectors.
When I first came to WWF in 2003, I had an opportunity to continue that work as more and more companies were embarking on their own sustainability journeys to better understand their environmental impact. Since 2003, the value that our partner companies place on sustainability has grown exponentially. In 2005, Walmart announced its sustainability goals which had a catalytic effect in advancing sustainability across the corporate sector and raised awareness of the role of the supply chain.
Working together with companies to jointly develop solutions to minimize their environmental impact while also improving their business practices—and hopefully strengthening their business’ profitability — and achieving WWF’s goals through this work has been one of the most rewarding elements of my work at WWF.
In fact, one of the proudest moments of my career was to see WWF recently named as the most influential NGO partner by the Green Biz Intelligence Panel. This recognition from more than 3,200 executives and thought leaders in the area of corporate environmental strategy and performance demonstrates that WWF’s approach to corporate engagement drives results for people, nature and business.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
SA: Arthur Blank, co-founder and former CEO of The Home Depot, had a significant impact on my career and personal view of sustainability as he pushed us, as a company, to assess our environmental impact and look at innovative ways for us to be more sustainable. I had the privilege of reporting to Arthur when I worked at The Home Depot and found him very inspiring, both personally and professionally.
Another source of inspiration is Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, one of the largest carpeting manufacturers and noted author on sustainable enterprises. Ray was a true sustainability pioneer and was a leader with a courageous and ambitious environmental vision.
Both Ray Anderson and Arthur Blank have shown me the powerful role that CEOs can have in defining their company’s sustainability legacy.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
SA: The best pieces of advice I have received have been about risk taking and thinking outside the box.
First, if you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t taking enough risks. I’ve found that the most innovative solutions often come from outside your own comfort zone.
Second, to move to the next level, think and act like you’re already there. Think ahead, think broadly and don’t be limited by your position or title.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
SA: One of my most important accomplishments was launching WWF’s transformational partnership with The Coca-Cola Company to help conserve the world’s freshwater resources. Expanding this focus and building on our progress, we recently renewed our collaboration through 2020 to achieve even greater impact by helping address the natural resource challenges that impact fresh water. This partnership has had significant impact around the world and is unique in its focus on building a sustainable value chain for the 21st century and beyond. It has been an exceptional experience to see our two organizations (WWF and The Coca-Cola Company) work so closely together – it’s a true partnership and definitely not your typical NGO-corporate collaboration.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your organization or in your industry, what would it be?
SA: I think that at every organization there is an ongoing opportunity to empower people to be innovative risk takers. In the realm of corporate sustainability, I think there is momentum at some companies to approach sustainability from an entrepreneurial perspective; to look at it through the innovation lens. I’d like to see this continue as it not only makes for a more stimulating work environment, but it also can inspire terrific results and outcomes.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
SA: My perfect day begins sitting on a screened-in porch in Louisiana with a steaming cup of café au lait and ends with a sunset cruise on the Bayou.