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Responsible Leadership: An interview with President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Jacob Duer speaks with Yan Vermeulen on the importance of being bold, courageous and transparent to effectuate sustainable change.

Yan: Thank you very much for taking the time today. So, maybe we can kick off with this first question, what does sustainability mean to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste?

Jacob: Well, for us, sustainability is really at the core of who we are. And I think I always define sustainability in two ways. On one hand, it is all our activities, they need to have a positive impact on our planet, and therefore on our air consistent and our environment.

The second one is that all the solutions that we are part of developing, they have to be sustainable in themselves. That means when the Alliance is no longer involved in a certain activity, or a project, that particular activity has to run in itself. And for us, this is all about action, we want to translate the commitments of many, whether it’s of companies or governments into change on the ground.

For the Alliance, we do that in four areas, we are focusing on investment in infrastructure that prevents the leakage of plastic waste into the environment. We are investing into innovative technologies. We're working with communities and global citizens more broadly in providing education and engagement. And then of course, we do clean up recognizing a lot of plastic waste all sits in the environment. And if we can make all that a success, then we believe that this is about being sustainable, meaning we are contributing towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We believe that if we can get it right then our solutions will be sustainable in themselves. That means when we are no longer there, communities, project partners are doing it all by themselves.

Yan: Thanks very much for the insightful answer. And then what does responsible leadership mean for you as an individual? So, there's sustainability, people think about the environment; think about social and about governance. If we take responsible leadership as a whole, what does it mean to you as a leader?

Jacob: For me, it's about being bold, it's about being courageous, and it's about being transparent. Because sustainability is all about change. And if we indeed want to see the change that we are advocating for, and I think in many ways, often preaching as well, then we need to be bold, transparent, and courageous. Otherwise, that change is not going to happen at the speed and at the level of change that we are looking to effectuate.

And how do we do that within the Alliance? Well, this is about having bold and transparent conversations among each other. It's about doing things that haven't been done before. It's about moving borders and thinking outside that famous box and saying, “Well, if we continue to do the way that we have done in the past, we are not going to be able to see the change that we want to see when we are talking plastic waste in the environment.” And very often it's difficult to be bold, it's difficult to be courageous because people are taken out of their comfort zone.

So, for me as a leader, it's very important to create a space where all ideas are welcome. Where all solutions can come to the table, where we can have open and transparent conversation around these types of solutions, recognizing that not all of them necessarily will turn into the actions that we are carrying out.

But if we are not open and transparent among each other, we are not going to be able to serve the communities that we are looking to serve. And those are the ones that are mostly impacted by the pollution that we see associated with plastic waste entering the environment.

Yan: What advice would you give to other leaders out there that might have this responsible leadership style, or this ambition for their company to be more sustainable? How do you drive that culture within your team?

Jacob: I think one message is you can't do this alone. This can only be done if you get everything rallied around that concept of openness, transparency, boldness, and courage. You need to get everyone on the same path in terms of what is the mission, or the objectives that are trying to be achieved. This is for me a lot about co-creation, this is not from the top, this comes from the bottom. It needs to show the participation of everyone, no matter which role or function that person performs within the organization. And if we're looking outside the organization then I also believe that no simple organization or complex organization can do anything alone.

It is only through partnership with others, that we are going to be able to pull our resources, human resources, innovative thinking, disruptive technologies, and financial resources, and only if we pull them across sectors, are we going to be able to find the true sustainable solutions that the world is looking for.

Yan: You spoke about partnerships, now the United Nations came up with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The last one is exactly what you're speaking about. And as a member organization, I believe that every single member is committed to this. What advice would you give other companies out there in driving sustainability down their own value chain?

Jacob: I think the reality is everyone wants to be part of the solution. In particular, when we talk about sustainability right now. And I believe that most recognize increasingly that they can't be the solution themselves. It's only through partnerships, only through a collaboration across the plastic value chain, which is the area where we are working, but with any actor who wants to be part of that solution space.

By joining the Alliance, not only do member companies contribute to our work, but equally important, they learn from the work of others that are operating in this solution space in terms of plastic waste in the environment.

There is a gift, but there's also a significant part of taking, and that taking and learning that happens through the membership of the Alliance. These are the type of learnings that companies take back into their own, let's say business model conversations and their own sustainability conversations. And that's how they are thriving and pushing positively the sustainability agenda through the value chain that they are working in with their customers and their clients.

This is a very large ecosystem of actors that need to come together. Only if that happens, not only across the private sector, but equally much with governments, civil society organizations, development banks and financial institutions, are we able to or will we be able to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

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