…a Trade for Good day in the stock markets. I think we should get all the financial services company to encourage people to trade on a particular day of the year and use the commission dollars to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We could do this on every exchange in the world. Financial organizations would win. Awareness would be raised, and more people would be brought into the markets to trade. And the world would win.
I had the distinct pleasure to interview Thomas M. Kostigen, JConnelly Director of Sustainability. Thomas is a globally recognized sustainability expert, a New York Times’ bestselling author, award winning National Geographic writer and renowned environmentalist who has traveled the world studying the impact of individuals, government and business on the overall health of the planet. Tom speaks widely at environmental, social value, and corporate governance events. As Director of Sustainability at JConnelly, Tom continues his work with organizations large and small to refine and communicate their purpose.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Thomas! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I began my career as a typical journalist: daily newspaper, wire service, then magazines. Eventually, I became a columnist and started expressing my opinion about social issues. That led to an opportunity to work on a documentary in Africa. When I was in Ethiopia, I saw up close pretty much all the social challenges waged at humanity. But I also saw opportunities and hope for change. That’s when I decided to shift from merely creating awareness to empowering people and organizations with tools that — hopefully — help create a more sustainable world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you became a sustainability expert?
I was exploring water reuse — a missed opportunity for a lot of organizations — and I visited in southern California the Orange County Water District, the premiere model for water reuse in the world. When I say water reuse, by the way, that is a nice way of saying reusing sewage water. I went inside the sewage pipes to where they sift water from raw sewage. I was shown the whole process from sewage pipe all the way to an industrial sink. From the tap, you can sample the water — drink it. I did, and it tasted fine. Of course, when you think about it….
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are a lot of acronyms in the sustainability space that you have to learn. And when you are just starting, I didn’t want to seem ignorant of any of them. I was at a meeting where everyone was talking about CGI, CGI, CGI. I kept thinking was is everyone talking about animation? CGI is, of course, the Clinton Global Initiative. I should have admitted I had no idea what people referring to. I missed out on an invitation to attend. Lesson: admit that you don’t know everything.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We deep dive into cutting edge issues. And we understand how to communicate those issues in ways that are relevant and incite interest. For example, a global retailer was interested in unique ways to offset the carbon emissions in their supply chain. Most offsets involve engaging a third party to plant trees, or whatever. Then credits are purchased. By suggesting a new way to leverage the oceans as a carbon offsetter, we brought something fresh into the conversation that could be messaged in a unique way. Moreover, our oceans are our biggest carbon sinks, so why not help to save them? We always strive to raise awareness and be effective at the same time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the biggest bats that can be used to foster sustainability is capital. We are working with financial services firms to shift the way they think about socially responsible investing — and to create impact in ways people may never have imagined. There are ways to promote gender equality, mitigate human trafficking, help refugees, and much, much more. These areas used to be relegated to philanthropy. On that note, we are also working with some major benefactors to change the way they allocate their assets; we encourage and advise impact investing as an alternative.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Collaboration is a really important thing to encourage. Employees, especially millennials, want to work for companies that make a socially positive difference in the world. In fact, a new study just came out that found this group would actually sacrifice income for ethics. I’d say promote purpose over profits.
How do you define “Leadership”?
Authenticity combined with authoritativeness.
What advice would you give to other C-Suite executives about the best way to implement sustainability practices?
Don’t just do it — you need professionals. Checking the box and saying that you are socially consciousness doesn’t cut it. There needs to be a deep practice that is imbedded in all areas of your business.
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?
William McDonough is a man I look up to. He created the Cradle To Cradle concept, where every product should be designed as recyclable from its beginning. He famously says there is no “away” in thrown away. (Hence, cradle to cradle, versus cradle to grave.) He wrote the foreword to one of my books. When he came to my office, he took a look at my laptop, which was old and heavily used-a pretty banged up old mac. He loved that it was old, and that I was still using it and hadn’t traded it in for a new model.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became a Sustainability Expert” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Everyone lives in a cave. By this I mean that people tend to stick to issues that affect their own particular industries, or interests. There is less concern and understanding of broader sustainability issues, or even how they are interrelated. A big part of what I do is connecting the dots and creating awareness and showing relevance. This could involve showing the water-energy nexus (50% of the surface water in the US, for example, is used to create power and electricity, whereas you need power to transport water: 30% of the power in California, for example, is used to move water around the state.) There are also indirect connections: supply chain transparency increasingly affects sales, and sustainability reports are found to be positively linked to employee satisfaction and management acumen.
- Easy problems, aren’t easy fixes. Getting people to undertake even the simplest shift in habit takes a lot of hard work. Some people are used to letting the water run when they shave or brush their teeth. If they didn’t they’d save on average about 5 gallons of water. That may not sound like all that much, but it adds up to billions of gallons of water wasted each year. Other people like to let their cars warm up, or idle. They may know the results of their actions, but letting your car idle puts twenty times more pollution in the air than driving at an average speed. Even when people are made aware, old habits die hard. Extend these simple examples to business practices and resistance ensues, exponentially utilizing new, behavioral techniques can prompt people to change — but it’s work to change habits but well worth it in the long run.
- There is protocol madness. I was in Milan meeting with the head of a prestigious fashion line at her atelier. She asked what ethic protocol her company should adhere to. I had to break the news that there are more than 600 eco fashion protocols, ranging from sourcing, labor, waste management, water use, energy use — and many more. You have to know them all plus which are relevant, and which aren’t. And that is just the apparel sector. There is a lot of granular knowledge to be learned.
- Money talks the most and the loudest. In England, I was speaking with a brilliant engineer who had a discovery that could cool the oceans. As our conversation was ending, he asked if I knew any investors. He couldn’t get funding. A few weeks later, I was on the phone with a business executive. He had just raised $500,000 for an environmental education program — and had no experience and no idea what he was doing. More financial commitments were rolling in. I realized it isn’t often the best idea that wins — it’s the one that got funded. Money follows money.
- You don’t have to be a perfect example. When I first started out, I wanted to be the perfect model of sustainability myself. But you can’t be all things to all people. You can’t live off the grid, send messages via carrier pigeon, and eat dead vegetables that have fallen to the ground with your fingers. To be effective, you still have to take airplanes, use electricity, take a gas-powered taxi or whatever. Of course, I do my best to lower my carbon and eco footprint, but there really is no perfect eco citizen in the world. You can’t beat yourself up about it. You just have to do your best. Corporations don’t have to be perfect eco citizens either. But they do have to start somewhere.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to do things that will help the next generation. I wrote a kids book that won a big writing award and I received a lot of feedback and messages from kids in elementary school. That means a lot to me. I express to business owners and people interested in the sustainability space that it’s not about us. It’s about kids. That’s who we should be trying to create a better world for.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A Trade for Good day in the stock markets. I think we should get all the financial services company to encourage people to trade on a particular day of the year and use the commission dollars to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We could do this on every exchange in the world. Financial organizations would win. Awareness would be raised, and more people would be brought into the markets to trade. And the world would win.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life
“Never freak out.” I grew up sailing off the coast of Cape Cod. The guy who taught me to sail was an old salt. First lesson, he said: never freak out. That will only make things worse and you won’t think straight. Saved my life a few times, that advice. In harrowing or super tense situations, it’s important to remain calm.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Bill Gates. He does so much good in the world — and he does it in a very sophisticated fashion. Making the greatest impact isn’t easy. It takes a lot of research and management and oversight and due diligence. The amount of money he puts to good use is staggering. But he does it in a sustainable way. I really respect that he has dedicated his life to good causes. He didn’t have to. He could have carried on at Microsoft or just did things that were fun for him and his family. But he took doing good big. He made his philanthropy a sustainable business.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn or read my blog on jconnelly.com.