Who's That Gal: Annie White of Sustainalytics

Age: 35
Occupation: Digital Product Manager
Hometown: Toronto
Current ‘hood: West End
Favorite brands with sustainable initiatives: Follain, Warby Parker, Reformation, Zady, Apple, Patagonia (just to name a few!)

Woah, “Sustainalytics” sounds complicated. Break it down for us - what do they do? What is your role in the company?

Sustainalytics develops research, analysis and insights to help investors, companies and financial institutions  make more informed decisions that lead to a more just and sustainable global economy.  We have clients all over the world who use Sustainalytics’ research to integrate environmental, social and governance factors into their investment processes and business decisions.

I’ve been with Sustainaytics for 8 years so I’ve worn many hats including industry analyst, sustainability project manager and research director.  Because most of Sustainalytics’ products and services are digitally based, we have an in-house software team that builds the online tools to support our team of global analysts and our clients.  Last year, I jumped from research projects to our software team as a Digital Product Manager.  I now lead the development of Sustainalytics’ ESG research analysis software.

Tell us about your background. How did you find yourself in the field of environmental sustainability?

I graduated in 2005 with a masters degree in environmental economics, so that was the first tent pole in the ground; at that time, there wasn’t a very clear career path in corporate sustainability so you really had to cobble together that path and even your job description on your own.

Right out of grad school I moved to Washington, DC and was a policy analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute.  IFPRI is one of the largest organizations in the world working on policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. Working closely with economists on real-world issues was excellent training but ultimately I found it a bit too academic.  

By this time (2006-2007), I was craving something more business-driven and fast-paced and was also developing an interest in corporate sustainability.  I did a bit of a pivot and joined lululemon athletica with the intent of developing their sustainability program, while they were still very small - just a few stores in Vancouver and Toronto.  After lululemon, I joined Sustainalytics in Toronto to learn more about the investor side of sustainability.  When I joined there was only 1 office and about 15 people but 8 years later, there are now more than 250 of us!  It’s been really fun to work with companies as they grow very quickly.  

Sustainability is a loaded word. How do you define it?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all definition of sustainability.  It’s a word that means something very different depending on the person or organization.  Generally however, I think it’s important that the definition encapsulates more than just “green”.  At least in a business context, I see any definition of sustainability including environmental, social and governance aspects.  I’ve also seen it defined as “people, planet and profit” which gets to the same thing - essentially the elements that need to be “sustained” if a business is going to stick around for 50 or 100 years.  (Although, we should be thinking a lot bigger than simply sustaining what we have going on now).  

The definition is also evolving to include many different actors.  Government, business, NGOs, investors and individuals can all contribute to a single global problem now, like climate change, in a way that aligns with their competitive advantage and set of values.  So I think the term is becoming both more nuanced and more inclusive.  

What are some ways you “walk the talk?”

  1. Having an impact through my career path

  2. Making responsible choices when it comes to personal investment strategy  

  3. Adhering to a mostly-vegan diet (I cave for dessert!)

  4. Adopting the “fewer but better” philosophy when it comes to shopping

  5. Never owning a car

Away from the corporate side, how can individuals make more conscious choices?

The first step is always to start at the “me” level and ask yourself what you and you alone can do to make an improvement.  At this level, there are all kinds of ways to move the needle - dietary choices, purchasing patterns and transportation are all great places to start.  And it’s getting so much easier to make these changes now.  I always think about how lucky we are to finally have a beautiful, cool, fun company like Follain, for example, that sells safe, clean makeup that we actually want to wear!  Across most consumer categories, the options are so, so much better than they were even 5 years ago.

At some point though, someone who wants to make a real impact should shift their focus from “me” to “we”.  This means taking it outside yourself and looking to change the system at large.  This could be through political action, volunteer work, investment decisions and career choice.  This shift, by the way, is also when the learning really accelerates because you start to get a grasp on the sheer magnitude of the problems we’re grappling with.   

What inspires you to keep working?

The business and start-up world keeps me motivated because it moves so quickly.  There are real solutions coming from a business-oriented approach, especially when they are combined with radical improvements to technology.  MIT's City Farm, the Soofa solar benches we see around Boston, Nike’s Flyknit technology, Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup, even Facebook’s new solar-powered drones - these are all exciting advancements that could have a tangible impact over time.

I also have faith that especially in the U.S. there is a tremendous capacity to change and remain changed.  Things get way, way off track - carbon levels, ocean pollution and extinction rates are good present-day examples of this.  But historically we’ve demonstrated the ability to course correct and continue on.  The fear most of us carry is that we aren’t employing this change quickly enough, given the enormity of the sustainability challenges we’re currently facing.

Your job is also pretty tech-y. How do you handle working in the male-dominated software world of software?  

I’m lucky to work in a very diverse company like Sustainalytics, where the culture is highly respectful, supportive and where everyone takes equality very seriously.  Just about half the company is comprised of women.  So in my day-to-day work, I’m rarely the lone female and even when I am, I never feel isolated because we all value stuff that has nothing to do with gender:  hard work, great results and helping each other out.  

But I realize this isn’t the case across software professions more generally.  I’m new to this field and so I don’t have a firm grasp on how to instill greater gender equality more broadly.  However, I suspect it has something to do with greater transparency around pay, improved early education for girls and putting substantial initiatives in place to shift company culture at all levels, starting with executive and board leadership.     

What’s next for you / Sustainalytics?

As someone who’s new to the world of sustainability and software, I’m excited to see what comes from the emergence of ‘big data’ and better digital tools.  We are decades into corporate sustainability now and can finally start to draw on huge data sets to reveal important trends, omissions and to make better decisions.   

And lastly, what are you currently reading?

The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey & One More Thing by BJ Novak

Cameron BrunsComment