Stanford announces 2015 Stanford Bright Award recipient

The annual prize recognizes unheralded individuals who have made significant contributions to global sustainability. Polly Courtice has won the 2015 award for her efforts in guiding thousands of business leaders to more sustainable business practices.

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Polly Courtice is the founding director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. She has been named the recipient of the 2015 Stanford Bright Award.

When Polly Courtice graduated from college with degrees in history and archaeology, she had no intention of becoming a leader in environmental sustainability. In fact, she now jokes that the word might not have even been in her lexicon at the time. But since then she has spent two-plus decades as founding director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and guided hundreds of corporations toward making responsible environmental decisions.

This accomplishment has earned her the 2015 Stanford Bright Award, the $100,000 prize given annually to an unheralded individual who has made significant contributions to global sustainability.

Ray Bright, a Stanford Law School alumnus, created the award as a gift on behalf of his late wife, Marcelle, and himself. Mr. Bright died in 2011. “We are very proud to be the stewards of such a generous gift from Ray Bright and to carry on his wishes by shining a light on critical work such as Polly Courtice’s in the hopes of extending its influence,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.

Courtice started at the University of Cambridge in 1989, working as one of two people in a program aimed at transferring technical know-how from the faculty to industries in Britain. After the United Nations’ Earth Summit in 1992, however, she found that more and more companies were struggling to deal with public pressures to be more accountable for their environmental and social actions and impacts, ranging from human rights to climate change.

These were complex and messy problems for business to grapple with, Courtice said, and business leaders had few places to turn to for help and advice. This problem was also recognized by the Prince of Wales, who asked Courtice to bring together experts from the university and beyond to lead seminars to educate high-ranking business executives on the raw science of climate change, the social and ecological challenges, and the risks that were becoming increasingly evident. The resulting weeklong program sought to help board-level business leaders find a convergence between profitability and sustainability.

“Very few business leaders really knew how to deal with environmental externalities or other civil society issues not immediately tied to the bottom line,” Courtice said. “And yet companies were beginning to feel that chill wind. We helped create some structure around what felt like chaos.”

From that early success was born the Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which now counts thousands of business executives as alumni of its executive and graduate programs, and as members of its business-led leadership groups. The institute’s latest effort, called Rewiring the Economy, provides a 10-point, 10-year plan for governments, financial institutions and businesses to work together to build a more sustainable economy.

Courtice will discuss her accomplishments during a public lecture at Stanford on September 29, 2015, but in the meantime she spoke with Stanford Report to share a few lessons she’s learned along the way, and the one thing she would ask all business leaders to do.

 

Anyone who takes on a task this monumental must have a close connection with nature and care about social justice.

I grew up in South Africa, which is the most spectacularly beautiful country environmentally. I was there during the apartheid era, so it was also spectacularly unequal. I was acutely conscious of those things, the beauty and inequality, but also the environmental destruction that came with economic growth. I didn’t really know what to do with that sense of heritage or background until I encountered this notion that you could actually look at these things in a more holistic way, and that you could challenge the system that locked in such destructive tendencies. I came to realize the powerful notion of sustainable development might be a way of making sense of the tensions that I had grown up with, between economic growth, social justice and environmental protection. As an archaeologist and historian, you tend to look back, and as a sustainability proponent, you draw on those things and look forward. That’s an underlying driver of everything we’ve done.

 

How do you convince CEOs to adopt sustainable practices in their companies?

Businesses are programmed to reach for immediate responses to difficult issues and come up with quick fixes. Our approach, however, has been to require leaders to spend time looking at the science and the data and the evidence and consider the implications over the long term.

We encourage them to consider the health not just of their business but of the world in which they are doing business. We don’t try to sell them easy answers. We help them understand the enormity of the challenge by bringing in the very best thinking we can lay hands on, from thought leaders and practitioners and academia. We want to inspire them, to make them feel fully motivated to make a change. We spend a fair amount of time on this because once you understand that you might be able to do something about it, it gives you huge amounts of energy. I realized that if I could communicate that energy to business leaders, they could take this a long way into their organization.

We focus not only on the risk of being slow to respond but point to the responsible and profitable opportunities that are available as an early adopter. We’ve helped many companies to see which way the world was moving, to recognize the likely policy trends and to see the advantages of being a leader.

 

What advice would you give someone trying to make a similar impact?

I have learned that this isn’t something that one person can do by just being self-confident or smart – whether you are in business or academia. I built a team around me who cared as passionately as I did to address this problem. We built a core team of advisors and thinkers and academics from Cambridge, the U.K., the U.S. and around the world, and put in place a process on how to do this. At the beginning it was quite daunting for me because I didn’t see myself as expert in sustainability – I was just passionate about it. I was lucky to get people to collaborate with me who were not only experts but who cared as much as I did and wanted to see change in the business world.

 

What are you most proud of in your career?

The surprising thing to me is that nobody asked me to do this. The university didn’t say they’d like a sustainability institute. I’m most proud that it has been possible to grow from two of us in one room to become a 70-person, fully fledged university institute known all over the world. We’re now able to offer a master’s degree in sustainability leadership through the university. I’m not under any illusion; I have some fantastic aces in my pocket. One of the brilliant things about this award is that it will help us to reach more organizations that might not be as far down the road in sustainability as they should be.


What is the one thing you would tell every business leader to do to make their corporation more environmentally friendly?

I would encourage them to really understand their company’s full environmental impact and how it creates social value. I believe that when companies really start to look at their environmental impact and how they affect communities near and far in an honest way, instead of a defensive public relations way, they start to spot possibilities. This doesn’t have to be a highly public exercise – sometimes it helps to quietly open the discussion about the purpose of the company and what it stands for. I have seen time and again the wonderful response from employees who really care about the impact their company is having and want to do the right thing.

I would like leaders to recognize that the current state of play is completely untenable and unsustainable. Business as usual can’t last. Most of the people that I have worked with in business are decent human beings who don’t want to destroy the environment or other peoples’ lives, but they are often locked into a system where if they step too far out of line, they could get the chop. It’s a big ask, but if you don’t hold out the hope that there’s a better alternative and show them how this might be achieved, I think people become completely paralyzed.

What we’re trying to do is build an inspiring cadre of leaders who are more knowledgeable and confident in what they know, but also who have the kind of courage and determination to do something about it, and the sense of being part of a whole, unstoppable movement toward a better future.

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu
Alexandria Murray, Stanford Law School: amurray@law.stanford.edu, (650) 725-7516