The Journey Toward a Sustainable World

A Conversation with Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International


WWF is one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, with offices in more than 80 countries worldwide and approximately 6,200 full-time staff members. Its mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.

Marco Lambertini began his association with WWF as a youth volunteer when he was growing up in his native Italy. Now, with 35 years of global conservation leadership, he is director general of WWF International, a post he assumed in 2014. Prior to joining WWF, he served as chief executive of BirdLife International, a global partnership of more than 100 organizations. In that role, Lambertini broadened BirdLife’s global reach and relevance and decentralized operations to improve conservation efforts. His top personal conservation achievements include establishing the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, the largest protected marine area in Europe, and helping implement Sumatra’s Harapan Rainforest initiative, a forest restoration effort.

Lambertini recently sat down with Marty Smits, leader of BCG’s Sustainability Initiative in Europe. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow. 

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. How did your interest in nature begin?

There is a wonderful book written by Edward O. Wilson called The Biophilia Hypothesis. It’s a book that talks about our, humankind’s, innate attraction, affiliation, and curiosity toward wildlife and nature—simply because we have been immersed in and dependent on the natural environment for so many years, such a long part of our evolutionary history. The theory is that everybody is innately attracted by wildlife, by wild nature. Following Wilson’s theory I could say I have a very high level of biophilia. My mother told me that at the age of 4, I already had a little museum in my room with dead bugs, shells collected on the beach, et cetera. At 12, I became a volunteer of WWF Italy. I was organizing my friends to go and save tadpoles from drying pools and stuff like that. And I did door-to-door fundraising for conserving wild animals. I think I had that very deeply in my genes, actually.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest threat to wildlife and to nature in the world today?

There is no doubt that the key drivers having an impact on nature and wildlife are our current models of consumption and production and, more broadly speaking, our development model. We have been locked into a model where human development, social development, and economic development are happening at the cost of environmental degradation. And so unsustainable production and consumption are the two major drivers. If you combine that with the massive exponential population growth over the last century, it raises a very simple question: How much longer can we can develop using a model that does not take into account the limited resources of our environment and the limited resilience of the natural systems?

And so consumption and production are the key drivers of our natural-habitat loss, the negative impact on the functionality of ecosystems due to species extinction, and ultimately, of course, climate change. These are the key dimensions that we really need to tackle, and WWF strategy is all about that: dealing with production, consumption, habitat loss, climate change, and biodiversity conservation.

What role do you see for companies in this journey toward a sustainable world?

Companies play a massive role—and a crucial one as well. Responsible production and consumption will be the only ways of moving from a situation where we develop while destroying the planet to a situation where we develop in harmony with the planet. Change is possible through green innovation, corporate behavior, regulation, and consumer pressure. But business is already moving in that direction and beginning to see corporate environmental and social responsibility as more than useful, nice, or something they have to do because customers ask for it. Increasingly, companies are looking at environmental sustainability and their contribution to it as an absolute must for the long-term viability of their own businesses.

Whether we’re talking about water resources and how businesses are affected by water scarcity and water pollution, or about scarcity of other resources—the raw materials that are absolutely essential for production systems—businesses understand that it is absolutely imperative that we come together to support a sustainable development agenda, because ultimately, everybody will be affected. And businesses will probably be affected first. In fact, many companies have realized this and are at the forefront of innovating their production systems.

So it is happening. We need to see this accelerating, and we need to see more collaboration among corporations, civil society, and government to really crack the key consumption and production issues that are seriously affecting the health of our planet—and our own well-being and prosperity.

You described an organization that has a real global reach. How do you stay connected to your people on the front line?

First of all, I am coming from the field. I was a grassroots activist in the past. I managed local organizations, national organizations. I ran projects on the ground. So I’m very keen to remain connected to the ground. Actually, I think the field is a major source of inspiration, both in terms of understanding the issues in the real world and also in connecting with the people who are either suffering or are contributing to the problem. The connection with the field is everything, and I need it to remain sane, because as you grow up in your career, you end up managing things for others and helping others do things. But for me, really doing things remains a major, major dimension.

So I visit offices and spend time on programs in the field. I encourage people to share with me their ideas and concerns. I’m also very keen to strengthen dramatically the internal communications in WWF, so that everybody feels like part of a global team and connected to the various local pieces. I will never lose the contact with the ground.

What do you want your legacy to be at WWF?

I don’t think my contribution will involve coming up with an extraordinary new idea that will revolutionize the strategy. The strategy is very solid.

So rather than the what we need to do, I think I could do something about the how: how the organization could really unleash its full potential to deliver the strategy. We are a network, and although networks are exciting and have huge potential, they also can be frustrating and can underperform if we don’t address the complexity—the intrinsic complexity—of a network. My job is to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of complexity. By keeping it simple, staying true to our vision and to our commitment of delivering big systemic and on-the-ground results, I think I can help WWF fulfill its potential as a unique, truly local-to-global network.

About Marco Lambertini