How I got here… forestry sustainability expert, Aida Greenbury

The outspoken former Asia Pulp and Paper executive tells Eco-Business about navigating the politics of sustainability leadership roles, and why you don’t need to be a sustainability expert to make a difference.

Former APP sustainability chief Aida Greenbury
Aida Greenbury engineered Asia Pulp and Paper's landmark forest conservation policy in 2013. She says that people in leadership roles in sustainability are sometimes subject to personal attacks and undermined, both by internal and external actors, and become embroiled in politcal games. Image: Aida Greenbury

Aida Greenbury is one of the most well-recognised figures in Asia’s foresty and sustainability sector.

Best known for her time building and running the sustainability department of Indonesian pulpwood company Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Greenbury spent 15 years wrestling with environmental campaigners, recalcitrant internal stakeholders and government agencies, and marshalling the sustainability operations of a firm that was never far from controversy.

APP has faced criticism from environmentalists for deforesting swathes of carbon-rich Indonesian rainforest, breaching the rights of local communities and indigenous groups, and flouting agreements with green groups to end forest destruction, which has irreparably compromised the company’s reputation.

In a bid to shake-off the controversy, APP unveiled a landmark forest conservation policy (FCP) in 2013, pledging to stop clearing natural forests or sourcing fibre from controversial suppliers and begin resolving the many social conflicts it had been embroiled in over the years. Greenbury was both the brains and muscle behind the policy, which has become recognised as one of the pulpwood sector’s most important sustainability declarations.

When you are given a lot of responsibility in sustainability and are truly passionate and committed to it, it will cost you.

However, the company continued to be shrouded in notoriety. As chief sustainability officer, Greenbury, was charged with tackling the ongoing challenges to the credibility of the company’s sustainability claims. In January 2017, the company built one of the world’s largest pulp mills in South Sumatra, which raised a red flag among green groups.

Six months later, the executive abruptly left the company she had become synonymous with. She has since taken on a wide range of advisory roles for organisations including the World Bioeconomy Forum, non-profit environmental news platform Mongabay, public relations firm APCO Worldwide and forest-protection non-profit High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA).

In this interview, Greenbury tells Eco-Business about the mentorship by her late father, the first time she saw a tree cut down, the personal cost of running a high-profile sustainability team, and why young people should not be intimidated by so-called sustainability experts.

What’s your education background? Who has been your career mentor, and what was the most valuable thing you learned from them?

I studied wood technology at the forestry faculty of the University of Gadjah Mada, in my hometown of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for six years. I have been interested in forestry from a very early age. My father left to study for his masters and PhD at the forestry faculty of the University of Minnesota in the United States as soon as I was born. He came back when I was five years old. You know what people say, the first five years of your life set the foundations for your brain’s development. So, there I was, wondering what was so interesting about forestry that took my father away from me for five years.

The curiosity, on top of the many bedtime jungle stories my father told me, drove me to learn more about forests, nature, and their relationship with humankind. In my early teenage years, there were times when I sat down in my father’s study, helping him draw and colour the forest maps of Borneo, while other children were playing outside. Forestry has been embedded in me.

My father, Professor Sumitro as people used to call him, was my mentor until he passed away in 2009. He was the dean of the faculty I studied under. You can imagine the pressure I felt being both a student and the dean’s daughter. It wasn’t easy. People expected me to always excel.

I majored in wood technology. Wood technology is basically a division within the faculty which focuses on the economic value of timber. I learned everything about forests and wood, from their sustainable management, to how to make wood pulp from scratch.

The two most valuable things I learned from my father, that helped me through my career life are; first, nothing is impossible, and that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to achieve. Second, to be humble and help those who are less fortunate, the powerless and the voiceless. I have been trying to balance the two ever since.

What prompted you to move into sustainability?

When I was a student, we had to do several field trips to the forests. One of them was to Jambi in Sumatra. I remember the day when the students were taken to the middle of the lush tropical forest of Jambi to learn about tree harvesting. I stood there watching a chainsaw operator cut down an old, giant Shorea tree that measured about two metres in diameter. The tree was so tall and so surrounded by lianas [wood vines] that I couldn’t even see the top of it. Then, suddenly, the sound of the chainsaw stopped, and the operator yelled at us to move away. With a loud and prolonged creaking sound, the ancient tree twisted wildly and began to fall, the lianas holding tight as the tree crashed with a loud boom on the forest floor, crushing the broken lianas, and hundreds of other plants, and other creatures of the forest.

Despite the previous several semesters dedicated to studying forestry, it was my first time watching a few hundred years-old tree being felled in the forest. I held back my tears. That was the moment I knew that we needed to see the forests as more than just a commodity.

What’s your proudest career moment to date?

My previous place of employment announced its zero-deforestation (ZD) policy in 2013 to end deforestation across its supply chains. As their managing director of sustainability, I had the opportunity to work with the best scientists and experts in the field to create new innovations related to ZD and sustainability. In 2013, there were no blueprints available for ZD implementation in the tropics, especially for the pulpwood plantation industry I was involved in.

Asia Pulp and Paper FCP Event - Aida Greenbury

Aida Greenbury presenting at a conference to unveil APP’s Forest Conservation Policy in 2013. Image: Flickr

I am incredibly proud of being able to lead the creation of ZD innovations, including in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, forest protection, restoring drained and degraded peatlands, and community empowerment, to name a few. To help create the blueprints for putting ZD into practice and being given the trust and support to do this is my proudest moment to date. We need to end deforestation and we need to show people how.

What’s been the hardest thing you’ve experienced in your career?

There are two. First, when you are given a lot of responsibility in sustainability and are truly passionate and committed to it, it will cost you. Sustainability is not just a job with a set of key performance indicators to be reviewed by your superiors. The world judges your actions. Sustainability issues do not stop because of holidays. Our planet does not stop spinning just because you need to take a break. Working in sustainability means that you need to be committed 24-7. There was a time when sleepless nights, emergency phone calls at 2am, and conference-calls on Christmas Eve, were my daily breakfast. I lost count of how many times I missed my children’s birthdays and school performances because I had to be on the other side of the world. I had a brutal meeting with executives from a consumer goods company while being attacked by environmental groups one day after I buried my late husband. I did not have the time to grieve.

Second, when you’re playing a leadership role in sustainability and are actively influencing policies and decision-making, you cannot avoid being attacked, sometimes personally, and undermined. These political games can come from both people in your organisation and external actors, including governments. These games can be quite horrid, especially when they see that your position and the policies you create threaten them, either commercially or politically, reducing their influence.

My advice on dealing with these political games is to anticipate them but never give up. As people say, regardless of the path you take, all roads lead to Rome.

What motivates you?

It might sound cliché, but I want to play a role in creating a better world for future generations to live in. One aspect that really motivates me is that sustainability creates so many opportunities to innovate for a good cause, for the survival of our planet. Have a look at the planetary boundaries concept as an example. 

Planetary boundaries principles

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. The planetary boundaries concept was introduced by Johan Rockström of Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Centre and can be used to assess where humanity stands in its impact on Earth’s systems and the point at which crossing a threshold puts society at risk. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

Humanity has crossed four planetary boundaries (climate change, biodiversity loss, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows), all of which are linked to soil carbon, forests, forestry management and biodiversity. It is clear that we need to restructure and change the current business models to better respect these boundaries, through innovations beyond zero-deforestation.

Sustainability is not just a job with a set of key performance indicators to be reviewed by your superiors. The world judges your actions.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone starting out in sustainability?

Ask yourself: what are you most passionate about? Is it forestry, environmental science, anthropology, or politics? You don’t necessarily need to be a sustainability expert to work on sustainability issues. You can be a teacher, an engineer, a politician, or any number of other professions, and find ways to contribute and give a lot of emphasis to sustainability. So, for the youth or high school graduates, find what it is that interests you, study it, and choose a platform to convey your voice. Don’t be intimidated by the established, so-called ‘sustainability experts’. Sometimes these experts need to learn from young people.

Aida Greenbury presentation

A slide from a presentation by Aida Greenbury at a seminar for aspiring sustainability professionals. “Sometimes, the younger generation wants to contribute in sustainability, but doesn’t know how to start. It’s our responsibility to give them guidance,” she says.

Where do you think the main sustainability knowledge gaps are among students now entering the workforce?

Last year a forestry student said to me: “I just joined this company. I knew that they were doing something wrong, but they didn’t want to listen to me because I am a junior.”

The one big thing that is not taught in universities, especially in Asia, is the knowledge about EQ [emotional intelligence] and self-confidence. Many countries, especially in Asia, are very hierarchical and patriarchal, in that the more senior, mostly male, authority figures are always right and refuse to listen to their juniors or people in lower positions. A basic overview of EQ at universities would be beneficial to avoid sustainability disasters due to this archaic behaviour that is still happening now.

Secondly, I believe lecturers, and students, need to expand their knowledge sources, not just sticking to last century’s textbooks. Sustainability does not work in silos. It’s important to understand global sustainability issues and how they interlink and influence each other. For example, draining peatlands for monoculture plantations in Indonesia is linked to forest fires and it might be linked to the melting permafrost in the Arctic and the spread of diseases.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you started out in sustainability?

The link between capitalism and sustainability. It is in a very poor state at the moment.

If you could start your career again, what’d you do differently?

Perhaps, to be more cautious with people and their true intentions. Having been exposed to people from all different walks of life, I have learned to read people better over the past ten years or so. In the sustainability world, where many promises are perceived as public relations stunts, you meet a lot of people who put up attractive façades. Unfortunately, oftentimes their true intentions are to use you, to advance their political agendas or careers, to enrich themselves, or to waste your time, without a single care for sustainability.

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