Making change happen will be your biggest challenge. We live on the front edge of new ideas, which means that we’re always asking people to change and do new things. Reality check: People don’t like new things that change what they’re used to. Finding ways to make change easier for people and ease the path are part of the challenge and, in my opinion, what make it fun. Asking why people aren’t on the bus yet isn’t going to work.
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Whitford.
Jeffrey Whitford is head of sustainability & social business innovation and branding at global life science company MilliporeSigma. In his role, he is responsible for developing and implementing strategic programs designed to enhance MilliporeSigma’s position as a global leader in green chemistry, product recycling, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Whitford earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and strategic communications from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and a master’s degree in business administration at Washington University in St. Louis.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/e71e23c1d84cb03a691c9b1082f7a9ac
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jeffrey! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I volunteered into my current job — six months into starting with the company that I’m still at 16 years later. My boss asked me if I wanted to help with the “community stuff” and I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know that “stuff” would stay with me throughout role changes. Then, when my company formalized Global Citizenship as a function, they asked me to move into that department. I expanded into sustainability and green chemistry, and took that with me through an acquisition and to where I’m at today. My background is in advertising, so I didn’t expect to be doing what I’m doing today, but what I love about where I am now is that my job is all about purpose, and that’s personally important to me. I know that I’m making an impact that’s bigger than what I could do individually, which is the bar I’ve set for myself.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
At MilliporeSigma, our purpose is to solve the toughest problems in life science by collaborating with the global scientific community, with the aim of accelerating access to health. We supply more than 300,000 products and services for scientific research and provide technical expertise in support of highly complex and novel research. Right now, our most important focus is on the COVID-19 response and providing products for life-saving therapies. We’re currently working with more than 50 different vaccine manufacturers, 30-plus diagnostic programs, and more than 20 other treatments in plasma products, monoclonal antibodies and antivirals.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
How much time do you have? There’s a lot. We’ve been transitioning from an approach that chipped away at individual problems, challenges or opportunities to a systematic approach for our entire organization. For instance, we just recently introduced an updated framework called Design for Sustainability (DfS) to address sustainability at the R&D level. Through this, we can bring sustainability into the conversation right at the start of our product ideation and design. As part of DfS, we recently introduced our new Stericup®E filtration device, which reduces the amount of plastic used in the product by up to 47%. We also significantly reduced the packaging and the weight of the product, decreasing the CO2 emissions for product manufacturing and transportation.
Another systems approach we took is our DOZN™ platform. I realized early on that there was no quantitative way to measure improvements in green chemistry. I read an article about how Nike was quantifying environmental improvements with its designers, and thought we had to do something similar. So, we set out to do it with DOZN™. It took several years, a lot of time from our team and several interns, but fast forward to now, and DOZN™ has transformed. In addition to using this system for quantifying the improvements we made in our science and manufacturing process, it’s also a free, publicly available tool — so anyone can start using quantitative information to make more informed decisions.
A third initiative is SMASH Packaging, which is our framework to holistically look at our approach to all packaging. We sell more than 300,000 products and have 2.5 million SKUs — so that’s a lot of packaging. Add secondary packaging and, in certain instances due to transit and safety regulations, we also have tertiary packaging. I love and hate social media, but it’s the ultimate mirror. We may look and say something isn’t bad, but then someone else thinks it’s a hot mess. I personally fall on the critical side, and am always looking for improvements we can make. Regardless, nine times out of 10, the feedback is that it could be better. We set out to address this by focusing on key areas of improvement and places that would make a huge systematic change. This includes projects that eliminate expanded polystyrene, ensure that our fiber-based packaging is deforestation-free, eliminate dead air space in our shipments, and make it clear what can be done with packaging at end of life. It sounds simple on the outside, but it’s one of the most complicated things we’ve attempted. We were fortunate that a few organizational changes happened, because they created an opening to do what we set out to do. Part of our approach is being smart about what and when we ask for something. If we need to rebrand everything, then that’s our moment to literally touch every piece of packaging and make a systematic change.
For our organization, products matter, and having an increasing range of greener alternatives is important for the future. We’re working to increase that offering, while also making sure that we have clear data to support why those products are a better choice. We recently introduced a new technology for antibodies — something we’re all now more familiar with, thanks to COVID-19. We sell antibodies to researchers to help them do their research, and our new ZooMAbs™ antibodies are a more environmentally friendly option. These products can be replicated and scaled easily, and shipped ambient without polystyrene coolers, ice bricks and additional packaging — helping to reduce the footprint by seven times. These important advances help decrease the footprint of critical discovery work.
Lastly, another big focus is our work on emissions and connecting the dots between the systematic programs I mentioned above, and the introduction of new products that allow us to decrease our emissions, while helping customers and those in our value chain do the same. We’re working on some new initiatives for our company, which we’re excited to see rollout in 2021. We’re committed to a high-quality, best-in-industry renewable energy and REC program that supports the aggressive climate targets we set.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
It’s so interesting to me that this is still a debate. I look around and see nothing but economic opportunity in relation to sustainability. I think it’s really the frame in which people chose to look at things. I find there are still a significant number of people who view sustainability through a risk lens, while there’s also a smaller but growing group that sees entrepreneurial and economic opportunity. You could be looking up at Mount Kilimanjaro if you’re in certain industries, such as traditional fossil fuels. However, I’m still convinced that there’s an opportunity everywhere — but you have to think differently.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
Model behavior. I’m a huge believer in this, and the reality is that little ones are paying attention all the time. Modeling the behaviors that we want to instill in them is one of those easy reminders. It can be simple choices, like the environmental decisions we make (for instance, choosing to recycle). The decision to recycle was the opposite experience with my parents. I finally told them they needed to change this behavior, and while there was a bit of a fight, they realized that change meant there was significantly less going in the trash.
Engage in the discussion. Nothing is more important than processing through things with young people — it’s not a one-way channel, it’s a dialogue. You start to understand and see how they view things, how they think and what’s important to them. Pay attention.
Join in. Every person has something that they’re comfortable doing. I wouldn’t categorize myself as a protester, but what is it like to join one of those protests? One time, I was walking down the street in Frankfurt, Germany while I lived there, when I saw police motorcycles. At first, I didn’t know what was happening, but then I saw hundreds of students who were protesting climate issues. Now, maybe the students don’t want a parent there, but it never hurts to throw the option out there and go along for the ride.
Give them access. The world is much more accessible now thanks to the internet, but are there specific resources that can help or encourage a young person in their journey? If this is a connection point with a young person, take it. They’re rare.
Make the change visible. Even those of us in this line of work make environmental errors. Or, maybe the others don’t and I’m just on an island, but I try to adjust as I learn and make better choices. For instance, I committed to not using single-use cups for my iced coffee. I started toting my own cup everywhere I went, and my team noticed and commented on it. Is that going to be the one thing that saves the planet? No, but it’s a step. If you can make a change that resonates with a young person, it empowers them and shows that their voice matters. At the end of the day, isn’t that support what we’re looking for?
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Everything takes longer than you think — but don’t give up pushing. I am notorious for pushing timelines and being overly ambitious in terms of when we can deliver projects, products and campaigns. I learned a great lesson with Cyrene™, a new innovative product. I said we should have it ready for market in 12 to 18 months, and a team member looked at me like I said we were sending someone to Mars tomorrow. Well, she was right, and I was wrong. While I try to make more informed projections based in reality, I also try to still push, because I believe we can speed everything up.
- Making change happen will be your biggest challenge. We live on the front edge of new ideas, which means that we’re always asking people to change and do new things. Reality check: People don’t like new things that change what they’re used to. Finding ways to make change easier for people and ease the path are part of the challenge and, in my opinion, what make it fun. Asking why people aren’t on the bus yet isn’t going to work.
- Don’t worry if people don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. I used to be offended by the fact that no one recognized what our team was doing. Little did I know, that was a blessing in disguise. As my boss says, I like to fly under the radar. We built trust and then went to work with little attention paid. We got a lot done. Sometimes, I wish we could keep flying under the radar, but the reality is we need some airtime so we can amplify the impact.
- Data is your friend — even if you don’t like it, aren’t comfortable with it, or don’t want to deal with it. Numbers and I have never really been friends. While the reality is that I’ve had to come to like them, I’ve done it my way and I know my limit. Am I doing regressions? No, but I can handle financial statements, budgets, etc. just fine. Getting comfortable with numbers is something that has taken time. One of my mentors and the former CFO of our company told me I needed to get an MBA. I was suspicious from the jump, but I decided that I would take a finance class to see how I would fare. I did it without telling anyone and survived — and it wasn’t as awful as I thought.
- Learning to lead with influence rather than authority is not only a remarkable skill, but also one that is much more powerful. It’s human nature for us to think it would be easier to lead with authority. You say it, it gets done. Thank you, check please. But the reality is that approach leaves little room for creativity, collaboration or contribution — and it’s going to take a lot more contribution than what I alone can give to see big change happen. Leading with influence is a skill that I worked on with my team, and am still developing. It’s not easy to nail it, and it’s not always effective at the beginning. It takes thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish in multiple ways and putting yourself in others’ shoes, which is, at times, uncomfortable. But, as people say, it’s in the discomfort where you find something valuable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s true — it does take a village and, in my case, it’s not different. Those who have played a role in my success include my parents, my grandpa, my third-grade teacher, my high school guidance counselor, the former CFO of our company and some pivotal colleagues and friends — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One person who changed the trajectory of how I showed up as a professional is Carol Williams. Carol and I met about 12 years ago via a nonprofit that I volunteered for. The organization was looking for help with branding and marketing. Another volunteer and I put together a branding proposal for the organization, and we were asked to present it to a board member. We blindly went into that with our presentation and hit the ground running. Carol eviscerated our work in the most kind, detailed and thoughtful way I ever experienced. I think every time I recount my experience, Carol is a bit exasperated and wants me to change my description of that first encounter. But it stood out. She put words to the things that I wasn’t able to identify or correct, and helped significantly strengthen what we were trying to do. I remember thinking that I had to get to know this woman pronto. Carol was a senior executive at May Company at the time, then became the president of clothing store, Catherines — where she revitalized the brand — and then worked as the executive vice president of product development at Kohl’s.
To this day, I’m still thankful that we had that chance encounter and I was paying attention, because Carol has been such a gift in my life. She has offered such wise and grounded council, pushing me to expand and explore who I am, who I want to be, and how I can maximize my contribution while also being a better listener. I remember one amazing piece of advice she gave me that rang so true. She said, “I learned later in my career that success for me was helping others succeed.” If my goal is to make the biggest impact possible, then being a multiplier is one way I can help accomplish that goal — and that advice is so critical. Carol is consistently a voice that encourages me beyond what I thought was possible. For me, the voice of someone who has been on a much bigger stage and conquered it, is exactly the encouragement I need to keep moving forward.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We deal with a lot of a little, meaning that we supply products in very small quantities to really interesting and bright researchers and scientists all around the world. I see my role as one that focuses on changing the building blocks people are using so that they have better tools. We deal with almost everything and every industry, but on a small scale. If we get those efforts right or make them better on a small scale, and they get scaled up, then mission accomplished. What’s remarkable is that we can decrease our environmental footprint, while also affecting change to impact the greatest amount of people.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
I have a quote from Winston Churchill in my home that sums it up: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Everything is a learning opportunity, even when it doesn’t go as planned. I’m a human sponge, always trying to soak up lessons. I may not get it right the first time, the second time or the third time, but you can bet that I will keep trying until I figure it out. That’s tenacity with enthusiasm.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @SAGlobalCit_JW.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!