Sustainability Is About Good Business, Not Philanthropy

Q&A With Clownfish's Diana Verde Nieto, Who Says Technology Gives China an Advantage Over the West

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SHANGHAI ( -- The newest warrior in the battle to improve China's environment is Diana Verde Nieto, a pixiesh, soft-spoken Argentinean.

Don't be fooled by her gentle demeanor, however. Ms. Verde Nieto is the global CEO of Clownfish, the sustainability and communications consultancy she founded to combine a background in marketing with a degree in environmental technology.

Working in the unglamorous back-end of manufacturing, Clownfish tells companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola Co. and Sony Corp. how to maximize their environmental strategies and understand the interrelationship of supply chain, sourcing, packaging, distribution and waste disposal issues. It also helps them develop marketing to deploy and communicate their actions.

"We can help businesses to put sustainability within their business processes," Ms. Verde Nieto said. "There is a misconception that sustainability is not for profit philanthropy. A company cannot be sustainable if it's not profitable and a company cannot be profitable if it is not sustainable."
Diana Verde Nieto
Diana Verde Nieto Credit: Normandy Madden

She founded Clownfish in May 2002. The timing was fortuitous. Soon after she opened her doors in London, the sustainability movement began to gain momentum from proponents such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Last year, she opened a Clownfish office in New York and began working with Aegis Group, helping the media holding company with sustainability issues for its own business and its clients.

Three months ago, Aegis acquired a 75% stake in Clownfish, providing the financial resources to open a third office in China last month. Clownfish is based in the Shanghai office of Wwwins Consulting, part of Aegis Group's Isobar division.

The company's name is a playful reference to the lead character in Finding Nemo, Ms. Verde Nieto's passion for scuba diving and the biological attributes of clownfish, which clean parasites off sea anemones and improve water quality. "They have have a perfect symbiosis," said Ms. Verde Nieto, who is relocating to Shanghai for at least a year to establish Clownfish in China.

In late November, she talked with AdAgeChina Editor Normandy Madden about her plans in China and the country's environmental challenges.

Japan has a strong record in recycling and waste disposal and Australians are vocal about environmental issues. Why did you choose Shanghai for your first Asian office?
China has this unbelievable ability to leap frog and also it has shown an incredible commitment to sustainability in terms of investment. For example, General Motors and its joint venture partner SAIC [Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.] just announced a major investment in a project to make 50% of all GM cars on the road in China electric by 2020.

Shanghai is spending 3% of its GDP on sustainability projects, mainly to improve water and air pollution. Here you have to pay for [plastic bags] and some stores give a discount if you bring your own. That's awesome.

Do you think there is real support for environmental issues in China at this point?
Maybe they don't call it sustainability as we do, they don't have the same jargon we use, but Chinese are talking exactly the same issues. Also, one difference to Japan is that commitment is backed by a strong, centralized government. It will be easier and faster to become internalized more readily in China than anywhere else in Asia because of this style of government. China has 1.3 billion people with 8% of the water in the world. That's why it's interested in joining the conversation.

Are companies in China already taking action in this area?
Some companies are doing a lot of good work, like Standard Chartered Bank and Haier Group. Sometimes it's because these companies are involved in exports. They want to go into western markets that have higher regulations.

Also, sustainability isn't just about nice. It's about efficiencies such as lowered water consumption and producing higher return on investment. There is a real business case for investing in sustainability. It's about investment, not cost. Because cost has no return, and investment does. It's also about having less churn, because people are proud to work for your company.

Are you talking with the Chinese government?
I'm trying. There's red tape everywhere, but I think there is a huge role for brands and government to work together. I would love to get sustainability within the national curriculum. If we do that, the next generation will definitely internalize it and then you'll really see changes. There is willingness for change. Remember how Beijing was before the Olympics, how much litter there was? Now you can eat off the streets in Beijing.

In research, Chinese claim to have a high awareness about environmental issues but that isn't really played out in their purchasing behavior so far. Why is that?
Because it's aspirational. What can you buy here that's recyclable? There is awareness but there is a role for media and for brands in connecting the dots.

It was the same in the U.S. and Europe. What is different here is that technology is an enabler. You can do a lot by phone, for example, like payments and micro-billing. Technology will enable quicker changes. Brands physically have to produce those changes themselves. It's important that they try. The planet has survived for billions of years. It will survive. We're the ones who may not.

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