“We’re the first generation to know that we are destroying the world and the last that can do something about it,” says Tanya Steele, WWF UK’s first female chief executive.
A well-worn soundbite perhaps, but it cuts through the noise of an already saturated climate agenda and explains why the world’s largest conservation charity is broadening its remit.
Rooted in the protection of iconic species, the 58-year-old non-profit organisation is committed to habitat restoration, promoting sustainable lifestyles and tackling climate change. It has banged the drum on the latter for decades, but only now are people are really listening. WWF UK’s support base grew by 23% last year, a momentum fuelled in part by Extinction Rebellion and the force that is Greta Thunberg.
“I believe this awareness is something [WWF] has contributed to but now it is about how we capitalise on the awareness and pressure in terms of what we need to achieve,” says Steele, a 50-year-old Macclesfield native.
“Whether it’s getting businesses on a net-zero pathway, consumers thinking about their own footprint or pushing for government investment in areas such as green technology, we are unequivocal in our mission.”
It is undoubtedly some mission: decarbonising the world, ending deforestation and reforming a food system that is sucking up natural resources. WWF’s activities are led by 7,662 staff across 83 offices globally in roles spanning advocacy and campaigning, science research, fundraising and communication. It has about 3,000 projects under way at any one time.
At the UK headquarters in Woking, Surrey, Steele’s base since 2017, the endeavour is clear from oxygen-boosting fig trees planted by Sir David Attenborough to a carpet made from recycled fishing nets. Rolling footage showing rainforest logging and melting polar ice caps compete for wall space while in a glass cabinet, 100 panda money boxes – like a panda version of the Terracotta Army – rotate intermittently.
It was while working in Zimbabwe as managing director of Save the Children that Steele first saw the devastation caused by climate change, and it fuelled a passion for the environment. She describes herself as part humanitarian and part environmentalist, but grounded in an efficient commercial mindset honed in the telecoms sector through stints at Siemens and BT.
“It gave me global perspective at least in an economic sense,” Steele says of her commercial work. “Many of the skills, from knowing how to read a P&L [profit and loss sheet] to taking new propositions to new markets, are directly transferable to this sector.”
Measuring targets as vast as climate change presents a different challenge. The plan is to achieve zero extinction of species, cut the loss of natural habitats and greenhouse gases and halve the ecological footprint of production and consumption by 2030, all targets that are harder to quantify than a rise or fall in profit or market share.
“Our work can seem very complex so we have to be clear with our board in terms of the basis on which we will contribute to a major goal, whether that’s working governmentally or putting forward advice and policy position at something like the COP25 climate conference in Madrid to hopefully influence on that decision-making,” Steele says. “We still have to show milestones or it could be disheartening, but undoubtedly we will tend to measure outcomes over many years.”
Notable gains bear this out. Conservation efforts spanning four decades have come to fruition in the last year as the wild mountain gorilla population grew to 1,000 and the species came off the critical endangered list, and the black rhino population in Kenya doubled to 800 since 1993.
The significance of partnerships is underlying theme, be it government lobbying, connecting with consumers to drive behavioural change or perhaps most visibly, collaborating with business to promote best practice and fund project work. WWF added Tesco to its portfolio of commercial partners this year, the supermarket joining Sodexo, Coca-Cola , Knorr and others. The mission, to halve the environmental footprint of the average shopper’s basket, is a major piece of work in terms of the supply chains involved, says Steele, and one that has been chosen as much for Tesco’s footprint and reach as its wallet.
Other partnerships include reducing the environmental impacts of fishing with John West and a sustainable cotton initiative with Marks & Spencer. The convergence of charity and commerce can still jar though. WWF has long faced criticism for working with companies whose practices can seem at odds with its mission. One notable example is Coca-Cola and the sustainability of the company’s use of water drawn from the river basins WWF aims to protect.
In the battle for funding and visibility it is a tricky balance to negotiate. WWF UK spent £54.5m on charitable activities this year. Membership and donations provide £34.9m of its £66.3m income, but corporate donations and sponsorship are now worth £9.4m.
Steele, who is clinical in side-stepping contentious areas, says WWF’s focus is on helping to shape a business’s future practice rather than expecting them to already be the finished article. She stresses the scope and reach of longstanding partners such as Sky. Its £5m investment in a rainforest restoration project has protected parts of the Amazon and communicated the message to millions of Sky viewers.
“It’s not just about doing the right thing,” she says. “Fundamentally this is about protecting both these businesses’ supply chains in the future and much of the planet beyond their lifetime.”
Working on a global challenge means regular international travel, and India, China, Brazil, Colombia, Kenya and Myanmar are all on Steele’s horizon in the new year. For a charity committed to reducing carbon footprints, adding to it through its endeavours can be a moot point. WWF UK produced 365 tonnes of C02 from business travel in 2019, 12 tonnes over budget. Air travel accounted for 85% of the total.
Steele says much European travel is taken by rail, but a global mission demands a presence to the countries affected. “The density of biodiversity in the Amazon is the greatest on this planet and if we fail in Brazil, Indian and China then we fail environmentally across the world, so I do need to go there.
“However, it can be easy to just step on a plane and we are now having to think much more carefully about how we work. Everything is under more scrutiny and rightly so; the sector has professionalised and I can’t imagine a more important time than this to sharpen up what we are doing.”