How to be a ‘sustainability catalyst’

by Shannon Houde

sustainability catalyst

Image courtesy of CDP

Stephanie Cárdenas has had an incredibly diverse career. Self-identifying as a “sustainability catalyst,” she has shaped sustainability strategies for international clients at Deloitte, worked as a green finance consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank and developed farm to fork systems as sustainability manager at Baldor Speciality Foods in New York.

Now, in her latest role as forest manager at nonprofit CDP, she’s part of the mission to get companies to disclose their progress on reducing corporate impact on people and the planet.

Here she talks leveraging that diverse CV, what keeps her up at night and the importance of 7 a.m. runs.


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Shannon Houde: Stephanie, first off, you have such a diverse background. How have you leveraged that diversity in moving to each new role?

Stephanie Cárdenas: It is all about transferable skills. Everything you learn in your career and in life can help you get to your next step if you know how to use that to your advantage. In terms of this role, I was interviewing for another role at CDP, and I mentioned that while at Deloitte I measured the GHG emissions for a dairy company and how much I enjoyed doing so. A couple of days later, I received an offer for an opening in the U.K., for managing forests with a specific focus on cattle. You really need to know how to put the puzzle together to build a strong profile. And show: This is what’s unique; this is what I bring to the table; and this is how I will help you get where you want.

Houde: And what was the process for you in identifying what job you wanted next?

Cárdenas: It was some great internal exploration I had to do. I loved my previous job; I was working in one of the biggest food distributors in the North Atlantic region here in the U.S. And it was just amazing that I could be close to the whole food value chain.A lot of my colleagues are ‘self-learners,’ and if you want to be in sustainability, that’s one of the things you need to do.

But it really came down to, what is the most fulfilling for me? One of the things I noticed was that I missed having this international background, thought leadership space and constant learning, which I had at Deloitte. The second thing was that I figured out that I love food, sustainability strategy and nature. Third, I was looking for a new role to work with people that breathe, sleep and dream about sustainability and one that I had to convince external stakeholders only. Personally, I needed something more. Putting it all on paper helps.

Houde: And your title at CDP is manager of forests. What does that actually mean? What do you do day to day?

Cárdenas: I’ll just start off by saying who CDP is. CDP is a global nonprofit that works with investors, companies and governments to build a sustainable economy, by measuring and acting on their environmental impact. Its vision is to create this thriving economy that works for the people and the planet.

The team I work with specifically is within the environmental practice team of CDP. Companies report on different issues, one of them being climate, another one being water and another one being forests.

My days usually start early. I start exercising maybe at 7 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. with a 7-kilometer run in the morning. Why am I saying this? Because I believe that your health and your well-being is so important. Otherwise, I’m joining a meeting at 7 a.m. to meet with the rest of the global team, my colleagues from Asia and Europe. Generally, my days are full of meetings in the morning with other regions.

sustainability catalyst

Image courtesy of Stephanie Cárdenas

The second part of my day has fewer meetings and is about building strategy, implementing projects and bringing that thought leadership piece. In a week, I’ll attend one or two webinars to ensure that I’m up to date with sustainability topics. I read articles or reports and that helps me with the constant learning that I need and that is one of the things I love about my job.

Houde: How do you see the issue of forests evolving as a sustainability issue?

Cárdenas: Forest is a huge and growing area of focus. We need more experts on the topic, and we need more experts on the topic of nature too. I work specifically combating deforestation and decoupling deforestation from corporate supply chains. I look into the issues and consider what questions we need to ask companies in order to see how their internal processes can impact deforestation specifically regarding the cattle commodity.

I don’t know if you’ve been following what happened at COP26, but in 2014, there was the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which established that deforestation would end by 2020. That did not happen…. So, at COP26 there was the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, ensuring that we end deforestation by 2030. The big difference is that now more than 140 governments have signed up, and they represent about 90 percent of the world’s forest, which is amazing. Around $19.2 billion has been put down to invest in this area to ensure we end deforestation and drive ecosystem restoration.

So, there’s a lot of things going on, there’s a lot of changes happening. And if you are up to date and know about these topics, I think this can be considered a competitive advantage to add to your resume or to have as part of your experience.

Houde: Given that you’re working with CDP, which is trying to externally influence companies and investors, how much direct contact do you have with that stakeholder base?

Cárdenas: Personally, I feel I have the perfect balance. Because of my consulting background, I really enjoy meeting with companies and learning their perspective because they bring so much to the table, things that need to be understood for a successful implementation of standards, or the most efficient ways to measure or try new initiatives. And I see CDP as that bridge; we are brought into conversations to bring this unique perspective and ensure that companies can perform at their best. So, I would say two to three times a month, I have the opportunity to meet with companies, but it all depends on the project I’m involved in. For example, for the cattle strategy, I had to interview the largest companies from Brazil, and I also got to interview the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Around April to July, I get to speak more with investors and companies. Listening to them gives you a broader perspective. That really helps.

If you like to speak to companies and help them, there are positions at CDP where you can engage with companies all the time. I think it’s challenging, but fun, too. You get to solve problems and guide companies in their environmental journey. And you get a lot of expertise, especially at CDP.

Houde: Talk us through what challenges you face on a daily basis? What gets you nervous or a little overwhelmed or keeps you awake?

Cárdenas: Well, what keeps me awake is wondering if the pace [at which] we are creating change, will be enough. Will we meet the global goals? Climate anxiety, I guess.

Challenges within my job, and in general in many jobs, to ensure clear communication between different teams. Everyone at CDP is a ‘believer’ — as I said, I wanted to transfer to a job in which I didn’t have to convince my co-workers about why what we’re doing is important. However, for strategy work it is important that everyone is on the same page and that we can clearly communicate amongst the teams.

I’ve been building the cattle strategy for the organization, and it has been challenging for two main reasons. The first challenge is in ensuring that this strategy brings competitive advantage to CDP and is aligned with our 2025 strategy. The second is that there are different approaches in the cattle sector, this means there will be many teams involved in the implementation and for this to be successful everyone needs to reach some sort of agreement. It’s challenging.

Houde: What two skills do you think are the most crucial to be effective in what you have to do in your job?

Cárdenas: I consider that thought leadership needs to be part of the skills. You need to always be on top of things and ensure that you can explain this to companies; for example, what are the latest standards/expectations. That also comes from my consultant background, the need to know what’s best for companies and really guide them. It is challenging because a lot of the relevant guidance is still in the works.

Good data analysis is also key. To translate those metrics into something that your internal or external stakeholders see as valuable. And strategy creation is important too, specifically for my role. For corporate strategy, it’s very clear sometimes how to do things and how to think about things. While for a purpose-led organization like CDP, we need to consider what is our broader goal, how much impact can we have if we make certain choices? You need that perspective.

Houde: In terms of building those skills, what do you think are some of the credentials or degrees that are things that people could do to build skills to get a role like yours at CDP?

Cárdenas: Having an education where you learn about topics such as environment, nature, biodiversity or sustainability helps a lot. But reading, too, is a huge thing. A lot of my colleagues are “self-learners,” and if you want to be in sustainability, that’s one of the things you need to do. You need to know that you’ll be on your own, because things evolve so fast and we really need to be ahead of the curve. You just have to start learning and trust yourself.

Shannon Houde is an ICF-certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect, where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about their day-to-day responsibilities.


This article was originally published by GreenBiz on Shannon’s Purpose & People column. You can find the original article here.


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