Green Leaders Talk Green Sports, Part 8: Freya Williams, CEO Futerra USA; Author of "Green Giants"


For the eighth installment of our occasional “Green Leaders Talk Green Sports”^ series—in which we talk with luminaries from outside the Green-Sports world about the potential of, and challenges facing the Green-Sports world—we bring you our wide ranging discussion with Freya Williams, CEO of Futerra North America, an agency that is both a “logical sustainability consultancy” and “a magical creative agency.” She is also the author of Green Giants, a deep dive into how smart companies are turning sustainability into billion-dollar businesses. We talked about how sports can become an important accelerator of the growth of sustainable business.

GreenSportsBlog: Hi Freya! We have so much to get to—your work at Futerra North America helping big companies unleash progress with sustainable purpose…and Green Giants, your 2015 book about how smart companies turn sustainability into billion-dollar businesses…and how sports can help sustainable business scale further, faster. But before we get into all that, I’d love to know how you got to this very cool place of making sustainable businesses bigger and more purposeful.
Freya Williams: My route to sustainable business came through advertising agencies, working in brand planning and strategy. I started at Ogilvy in London and then moved with them to New York in 2000. Clients were top level…American Express, Dove, Goldman-Sachs, Hershey, to name a few.
GSB: That sounds like a fast track to the top of the agency world, but it doesn’t sing “sustainability!” to me…
FW: No, it didn’t. But then I had my first kid, moved out of the city to the country in Pennsylvania, and my passion for sustainability and climate change took on a new urgency. I even wrote a blog—”Little Green Dot”—about green living. But that didn’t quite pay the bills. So then I talked to my former colleagues at Ogilvy about going back, but not to standard strategy work. Rather, I pitched them on starting a green practice, on the idea of the power of big business, big brands to harness their power for good.
GSB: That sounds like an embryonic version of Futerra, of Green Giants!  When was that?
FW: 2006…
GSB: Ahhhh, the “An Inconvenient Truth” era, when green was “in,” at least in marketing terms.
FW: That’s right! So the timing was good. Anyway, Ogilvy said “Well don’t give up the day job, but if you can bring in the business, we’ll support you.” So my colleague Seth Farbman and I got to work, starting up OgilvyEarth.

Freya Williams (Photo credit: Freya Willliams)

GSB: How did it go?
FW: We did well. One of our biggest campaigns was Hopenhagen, to garner support for the COP15 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009.
GSB: Ah, yes! That was the last major global climate change conference before COP21, the November 2015 worldwide get together in Paris that resulted in the first-ever agreement on country-by-country greenhouse gas emissions targets. While the results of Copenhagen, in terms of meaningful, intergovernmental climate change agreements, were less than stellar, how did Hopenhagen work out?
FW: Hopenhagen was a success. Coke, SAP and Siemens, among other global corporations, bought in. More impressive to me was that 6 million citizens worldwide joined our campaign, demanding action on climate, with 75 percent of that group being first time activists! But, with all that, Copenhagen 2009 was, as you alluded to, a failure. I felt that, with governments unable or unwilling to come to significant climate change agreements, it was up to business to take the lead.
GSB: Sounds like the situation we’re in now in the USA—a likely lack of positive action at the Federal level so business has to step in.
FW: Exactly. But how to make this happen? Well, in 2011, I co-authored a report called “Mainstream Green,” with my Ogilvy colleague Graceanne Bennett. I was the “green” and Graceanne was the “mainstream.” In it, we looked at how to move people from green to normal, from sustainable intention to sustainable action. What we learned was that social norms were huge in mainstreaming green.
GSB: Meaning?
FW: …We’re very much influenced by what our neighbors and others in our social circles do. This is innately human. If neighbors recycle, if friends ride their bikes to work, you’re much more likely to do the same. So that was a key insight in how to take green/sustainable behaviors from niche to scale. And this was true with consumers, businesses and investors alike. Another big insight for businesses was that, for the most part, they are not going to get to sustainable scale by being “Planet Savers.” No. The way they will get there is by making money by being sustainable. The business case for sustainability is essential. I took this approach from OgilvyEarth to the Social Purpose practice at Edelman in 2014 and then moved to Futerra in July, 2015 as CEO.
GSB: What is Futerra, exactly?
FW: Futerra is a change agency. We marry logic, through the technical rigor of sustainability, and magic, with the creative chops of a top agency.
GSB: What a powerful combination! Are you finding companies who are looking for that duality?
FW: Yes. Among others, we’ve helped Hain Celestial, the company behind Terra Chips and Blueprint Juices, develop their new sustainable business strategy, helped McDonald’s introduce much more effective recycling messaging in their restaurants, and helped FUZE TEA share its sustainable sourcing story with consumers. We also helped the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reach over 300 million consumers around the globe with a powerful message about wildlife trafficking—our campaign has been awarded top 10 by China’s social media network Weibo. And we’re growing—we’ve tripled our staff over the past year.
GSB: That’s great to hear. Now, a natural extension of your work with Futerra is your 2015 book, Green Giants
FW: …Right, well, Green Giants takes the change narrative and applies it to sustainability and corporations. Until now sustainability and climate change have been largely seen as a hypothetical, something to be dealt with in the future. But, the truth is, of course, is that climate change is here, right now. That means the opportunity to act to fight it is here now, too. That’s a business opportunity. And, you see, businesses, successful businesses, have recognized this. But I didn’t think business case had been presented in a simple compelling way. Well, a billion dollars is pretty compelling. But very few people have realized this. The Green Giants have.
GSB: So what are Green Giants, exactly?
FW: The Green Giants were nine companies when I wrote the book—there are more now—who have made sustainability core to their DNA and have at least $1 billion in annual revenues. It shows that these companies are not only successful; they’re more successful than their less sustainable competitors precisely because of their adoption of sustainable practices, not in spite of it. Green Giants use sustainability to disrupt their categories.
GSB: Nike, an icon of the sports world, is one of the Green Giants you focused on in the book. Tell us about that.
FW: Nike made the book as a result of their Flyknit Shoe. Their approach is so disruptive; it symbolizes the future of sustainable business at scale. It’s not just a new shoe; it’s a new way to make shoes, by some estimates the first in 40 years of sneaker history.

The Nike Flyknit Shoe (Photo credit: Nike)

GSB: How so?
FW: See, Nike decided not to go greener, not to go crunchier, but to go BETTER. In fact, Hannah Jones and the leadership at Nike changed the name of the department she runs from the typical Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to Sustainable Business and Innovation. As innovation is their lifeblood, connecting it directly with sustainability was both extremely practical and deeply symbolic showing that Nike is building sustainability into the beating heart of their business.
GSB: What is the Flyknit Shoe all about? What makes it so green-ly revolutionary?
FW: Through their sustainability-infused design approach, Nike was able to cut waste by 80 percent and make the shoe 20 percent lighter in the process. Which made it a super high performance shoe. Which is the Nike ethos. It also just looks really cool which has always been one secret to Nike’s success.
GSB: Do elite runners use Flyknit?
FW: Yes! The shoe was launched at the 2012 London Olympics and many of the athletes who run in Nikes ran with the Flyknit. Nike has since rolled the technology out across football (soccer) shoes, basketball shoes, and there’s much more to come.
GSB: What a comeback for Nike, sustainability-wise, from the lows of their child labor and sweatshop problems of the 2000s to the highs of Flyknit. I’m interested to know why Nike made the Green Giants cut and rival adidas did not? In 2015, GreenSportsBlog highlighted adidas’ work with Parley for the Oceans to make shoe components out of plastic ocean waste.
FW: That’s a good question. The reason is simply that Adidas has not yet had that breakout sustainability-inspired innovation that has reached the $1 Billion revenue mark – at least not to my knowledge. If that’s wrong, I’d love to be corrected – let me know!
GSB: Does that mean the Parley for the Oceans/ocean waste products can be looked at as promotional offerings rather than integral to everything they do?
FW: As far as I know, it’s not a technology that’s truly integrated into the heart of the business and the design process.
GSB: I get it and will check with adidas to get an update on how integral their ocean waste based products are to their overall operations. Another question: How come companies that are doing the right thing, sustainability-wise, rarely, if ever communicate this to the general public? Put another way, how come we don’t see Nike ads about sustainability for Flyknit on NFL or NBA broadcasts? I can’t recall seeing any…
FW: For the Green Giants, sustainability, from a consumer-marketing point of view, plays a supporting role. With apologies to JFK, Green Giants ask not what their customers can do for sustainability. Rather they ask what sustainability can do for their customers. This is particularly the case for Millennials and Generation Z. They don’t buy something because of a brand’s sustainability but they expect it to be part of a company’s ethos. Tesla, another Green Giant, gets this. For them, sustainability is a desirable outcome, not a marketing message. They make very cool, stylish, state-of-the-art, high performing cars that happen to run on electricity.
GSB: …And Tesla, it must be said, is getting involved at the intersection of Green + Sports, partnering with stadium and arena operator AEG to deploy its advanced energy storage Powerpacks at the StubHub Center, home of the LA Galaxy of MLS.
FW: This doesn’t surprise me. Now, another reason why sports has not been the place for sustainable messaging is that, according to the 2011 Mainstream Green research I mentioned earlier, 82 percent of people surveyed recently say that sustainability is for women, not men and that men don’t want to be seen as “girlie”
GSB: That is unfortunate…
FW: Unfortunate but, for at least the time being, true. Tesla runs counter to all that, by making sustainable manly, sexy, and enlightened. So I would expect sustainability-themed messaging to come first from winter sports—after all, their very existence is threatened directly by climate change…
GSB: And winter sports like skiing and the Winter Olympics have a strong female viewership…
FW: Yes! And it is important to note that we find attitude change follows behavior change. Meaning that people who start to recycle will, over time, have more pro-sustainable attitudes. Sports, by being a community convener, can play an important catalyst role in this process.

^ Here are links to the first seven installments of “Green Leaders Talk Green Sports”: 1. Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group; 2. Jerry Taylor, a leading libertarian DC lobbyist who was climate denier/skeptic, “switched teams” and is now a climate change fighting advocate; 3. Dr. Michael Mann, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists and the author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”; 4. Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF;  5. Paul Polizzotto, President and Founder of CBS EcoMedia; 6. David Crane, former CEO of NRG, who, in addition to moving one of the largest electricity generators in the US away from coal and towards renewables, also oversaw the “solar-ization” of 8 NFL stadiums; and 7. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, another leading climate scientist and the best climate change communicator I’ve ever seen/heard.
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  1. […] cap of at least $1 billion as detailed in the book of the same name by recent GSB interviewee Freya Williams) who are also influential, trend-shapers to market their sustainability bona […]

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