At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Letitia Webster, Managing Director + Chief Sustainability Officer, Merchant Banking Division, Goldman Sachs, about what the precipice of this moment in ESG means for sustainability leaders, the importance of integrating corporate social responsibility across your entire business, and the leaders that inspire her. 

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How did your professional and personal journey lead you to the field of ESG, social impact, and sustainability?

Letitia Webster, Managing Director + Chief Sustainability Officer, Merchant Banking Division, Goldman Sachs: When I lived in Telluride, there was a film festival they held called the Telluride Mountainfilm that celebrates important stories that need to be told within mountain communities — by and large, stories that celebrate a vibrant mountain culture with a focus on the environment and and on how it affects our most vulnerable populations. 

It helped to open my eyes to global injustice. I was very young — just out of college, and it informed my perspective. I was running a small non-profit in the region focused on the environment, and it became clear to me that I needed to make this more of my career path. I moved to the Bay Area, worked at The North Face, and while that was fun, I realized that what we were marketing — these big, pristine, wild places — was actually not what was happening in our supply chain, not just at The North Face, but in general across all products and sectors outsourcing to Asia. So I started the sustainability program at The North Face and it’s been my journey ever since.

Honestly, I’ve been passionate about this work since I was a child. It’s in my blood, and it’s so intuitive to me. It always pained me when I saw trees being chopped down for developments — I’d always wonder who was speaking up on behalf of the environment? Where are the birds going to go, the deer, everything that depends on them being there? 

But as I became more sophisticated and understanding of all of the unintended consequences and the ramifications of this work, it became crystal clear to me that there actually was no one speaking up, there was no voice in so many places for communities and the environment that were being impacted by decisions like that.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you make sense of what this moment means for ESG and its field builders?

Webster, Goldman Sachs: We’ve made a remarkable amount of progress in 25 years,  but there’s highs and lows through all of this. Obviously, the publishing of Silent Spring was a significant milestone in turning the tide and raising awareness on these issues, and designating Earth Day was a big high. But there are big lows that come out of it as people lose focus and competing interests take over.

Sustainability has always been based in the science of what is actually happening to human and environmental health. Unfortunately, the science argument was not always understood from an economic perspective — but the science does impact the economy. And so it’s only been a recent development that we’ve started to see the sustainability argument become rooted in the business argument. You start to understand the cost of these externalities, how they impact your business, and how you approach embedding those material risks in your financial considerations.

When Covid hit, people were worried sustainability would take a backseat, and in fact it only heightened awareness of it. As our country has grown more divided in recent years, sustainability leaders have had to navigate an even more complex environment. Despite this, the reality of the increasing intensity of the impacts taking place are actually motivating investors and businesses to go even faster.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some other factors driving movement in the field?

Webster, Goldman Sachs: Organizations like SASB have helped to evolve this work, making it more sophisticated, accountable, and transparent; while social media and NGOs helped amplify a broader sense of what’s happening in the world, from who makes our clothes to the carbon intensity of our beef, and now there’s a groundswell of consumer support for sustainability — and pressure on organizations to be more sustainable as their awareness grows more heightened.

ESG is maturing as a practice.  Companies have come along with it as have consumers.  Investors are at this precipice where they now understand the issue and their role in it. This heightened focus from investors is creating a tsunami of effort and impact as firms organize around this to integrate it into their investment approach and practices.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some of the challenges?

Webster, Goldman Sachs: Sustainability work and the knowledge around it were very isolated at first. Now, it’s opened wide up and there is a deep desire to understand it, integrate it, and do something about it.  However there is a proliferation of frameworks, reporting requirements, and regulations. These are not always aligned; they can cause a great deal of inefficiency and be unproductive, which is causing a bit of chaos in the system.  

We need a more focused and targeted approach globally. We need clarity on expectations and reporting, just as there is guidance on general accounting principles and SEC reporting. Otherwise we fill out spreadsheets and questionnaires all day long, and don’t have time to do the real work to improve on our impact.

We have to get to that point because we’ll be able to consolidate the most material issues, and we just have to be able to focus. Really clear, crisp policy is the most important thing, and I think that includes a carbon tax.

In this moment, we are seeing these macro forces underscore the importance of integrating even deeper. We just need to stay focused on the task at hand. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What is it about your approach that differentiates you from your peers in sustainability?

Webster, Goldman Sachs: My approach, which has been refined over years of coaching and mentorship, tries to bring people to make this work inclusive and welcoming. I think that’s a really important piece of success in this field.  At the end of the day, sustainability has to be embedded into every single business function. It cannot be a standalone, isolated leadership activity where we are taking ownership or control of all of the work. It has to be dispersed, and it has to come from servant leadership — a leadership that is humbled by everything that must be done, a leadership that is visionary about where we need to go and how we get there, and a leadership that understands the goals of all key stakeholders and how this work benefits the business.

And so, it has to play this careful balance of bringing people in to that shared vision that we have and inviting people in to join us and then supporting those people in that journey and making sure everyone is part of it and understands their role in doing so.

My passion and commitment have been my fuel — this is really hard work, there’s no doubt about it. Especially 15 years ago, when doors were slammed in your face and no one wanted to hear from you. We had to literally kick the door down, but now people are more prepared. The challenge is making sure they’re listening to it in a way that they can absorb, in a way that they can engage with. You can’t lecture them, you can’t shame them, you can’t fear them.

For me, it’s all about letting your personal purpose guide your approach to your work. And personal purpose is all about three concentric circles. One is, what are you best at in the world? The second is, what are you passionate about — for me, that’s sustainability and giving people a voice. And then the third is, what does the world need from you?

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some leaders whose work inspires you?

Webster, Goldman Sachs: I had the opportunity to see David Brower, the founder of the Sierra Club, speak right before he passed away. Listening to his stories — and the perseverance and grit that he had — it was just phenomenal.  For those earliest of environmental leaders to have that level of vision and commitment, is something I am in awe of and so grateful for.

Bill McDonough is a profound thinker whose work, specifically Cradle to cradle when it came out in 2004, transformed the way I thought about Sustainability and  how we can approach the opportunity for systemic change.  It was pretty revolutionary of him to go back to these ancient concepts of turning waste streams into nutrients for new products- he modernized the concept of a circular economy.  And, what he did to completely green the Ford River Rouge Truck Plant was fairly revolutionary  – it set the new standard.  He’s fantastic.

And a bit closer to home, I’d also have to say Hannah Jones. When she became the chief sustainability officer at Nike, it showed me that  I could do this work as my full time career, it didn’t have to something I pursued on the side.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Goldman Sachs is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.