Zoos and aquariums have evolved tremendously in the last few decades. While animal welfare rightfully remains the highest priority, zoos and aquariums are expanding their conservation efforts and investments beyond the walls of their own facilities. Thanks to the high level of trust that zoos and aquariums have earned within their communities, they have a massive opportunity to influence wider climate action. Zoos and aquariums have a special responsibility to act sustainably, as they care for live animals – especially endangered species. But there’s work to be done. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has an accreditation system in place that judges wildlife organizations based on several factors, including the practice of sustainability. Currently, of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the USDA across the country, less than 10% are AZA-accredited.
Ultimately, more zoos and aquariums need to drive a sustainability vision that embraces their potential to act as agents of cultural change as well as educators of sustainable development. I spoke with notable executives of zoos and aquariums across the United States who are incorporating sustainability practices into their organizations and how this is further promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle and giving a positive outlook on wildlife conservation.
Jeff Fromm: How are you currently thinking about sustainability?
Sean Putney, CEO at Kansas City Zoo: Conservation and sustainability are a core part of our strategic plan. We want to be leaders in these categories and our guests expect us to be as well. Zoos have come such a long way over the last 50 years. Though excellence in animal care continues to be a focus, we are also concerned with the environments where they come from and where we live. We are involved with dozens of projects that range from regional to international efforts and often times the focus is on the animals and how to protect them from extinction, but it is equally important to look at the environment in which they live and how to sustain it for them and for us.
We have come a long way at our zoo but we continue to look for ways that we can get better and “walk the walk” not just talk the talk. Specifically speaking about the efforts we have made on grounds in the last decade, I can point to photovoltaic cells on many of our buildings that help to generate the electricity we use. We have also reduced energy waste in several buildings by updating control systems. We have added well over 100 recycling containers throughout the Zoo to make it easier for our guests to make the right choice. We have green roofs and water gardens as well as multiple areas that utilize local plants and flowers that need less watering. When building new, or renovating old, animal exhibits, we incorporate sustainability into the planning sessions as well. Several buildings are LEED Certified as we look for ways to save and conserve water and other resources and energy. We collect animal waste and plant refuse and make a rich compost that can be reused on grounds as well as sold to the local community. We have also been involved with efforts outside the Zoo as staff have helped with Blue River Cleanups and placing signs at local schools encouraging “no idle zones.”
All of these should reveal that conservation and sustainability is important and are woven into our everyday practices.
Fromm: What can other CEOs and CMOs learn from your sustainability practices ?
Kelly Dittmann, Hitachi America Ltd. Commercial Lead, Head of ESG and Sustainability, Environmental Business Division: There is a holistic, confluence of factors leading to why creating a sustainable tomorrow is critical to develop today. As I work with CEOs, CSOs, CMOs and multiple stakeholders across the globe, leaders are grappling with how to drive net-zero priorities in a strategic way that will lead to the right outcomes at the right time. It is paramount to core business strategy, to develop a way of building accountability as a mechanism to enable credible measurement and ultimately a level of transparency that will unlock future value. At its heart, we have the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are our call to action by the United Nations and built on decades of work by countries providing a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet. Zoos and Aquariums are positioned to play an active role in leading the way in animal welfare, conservation, education and research. As I work with clients, we have taken a role in enabling clean energy initiatives as we look to modernize grid, consumption and energy infrastructure with a focus on decarbonizing legacy systems. We have had success evolving sustainability master planning initiatives as we work to integrate digital and energy ecosystems through smart cities and renewable designs. Adopting renewable energy and use products where possible is key to our energy transition and will accelerate the important work of our Zoos and Aquariums as they care for live animals and endangered species.
Dolf Dejong, CEO at Toronto Zoo: We have a unique opportunity to educate the more than 1 million guests a year that visit our Zoo about how they can be the seed of change at home and take small actions for big impact. Ensuring guests understand the plight many of our species face in the wild is hugely important, and we want to provide ways for people to feel they can make a difference in their day-to-day lives. Using our online guide to purchasing sustainably sourced palm oil products is a great example. As a conservation tourism attraction, we also ensure we are limiting our environmental impact but hosting sustainable corporate events and working with our food services providers to limit our use of plastics on site.
Adriel Lubarsky, a leading strategist at GreenPlaces said, “Companies have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to wield power in their communities on causes like sustainability. Educating customers, employees, and other stakeholders about the sustainability progress you are making, and giving them tools and knowledge to make changes in their own lives, can inspire positive change on sustainability and a lot of good will toward the organization.”