NEWSMAKER: The pragmatist - Robert Napier, Chief executive, WWF UK


The former non-executive director of United Biscuits leans over the desk and offers me a WWF ballpoint pen to replace my spent Biro. "Here, have one of ours,

he says. WWF UK's chief executive Robert Napier is nothing if not pragmatic, and according to him, this pragmatism goes right to the heart of the environmental charity he leads.

"The WWF approach is to look for solutions,

he says. "We'll challenge you, and may well say 'stop doing that' but we'll also say 'start doing this instead'."

Napier, 55, believes that this approach is going to pay off later this month at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Not only is WWF in line to land a potential £80 billion worth of river basin management projects in Africa (Third Sector, 19 June), but it also expects the summit to mark a new chapter for WWF in terms of shaping domestic and international housing policy. The connection between housing policy and an environmental charity may not seem that obvious at first but Napier explains the synergy. "Over 20 per cent of CO2 emissions come from the housing sector,

he says. "'Housing is very relevant to our objectives: forestry, climate change, toxic chemicals and bio-diversity."

Sustainably designed homes are cheaper to run in the long term, typically saving 90 per cent on energy bills and 60 per cent on water. They use wood sourced from sustainably logged forests and are built on brownfield sites so do not encroach on the countryside. WWF wants more homes in Britain to be built this way and believes the Government will support some kind of commitment to this at the summit.

This is because the timing for its sustainable housing agenda is just right, he believes. It ties in very neatly with the Government's need to do something urgently about the housing crisis without inflaming the environmental lobby. "Our sustainable housing proposals have resonance with government,

says Napier. "There are lots of win-wins. They're good for local communities, good for bio-diversity and climate change and can provide housing for the lower paid."

WWF still sees itself as first and foremost a conservation charity but has become increasingly involved in related issues, such as economic development and housing. As part of its huge Investing in Nature partnership with HSBC, WWF staff on the ground are helping Chinese peasant farmers diversify their incomes by moving away from rice production and in the Amazon river basin are encouraging locals not to over fish.

This is not entirely new ground for WWF, according to Napier. The charity has run integrated development and conservation projects before, such as its Save the Rhino project in Namibia.

But now the link between conservation and development is far more explicit and ambitious in scope than it was before, he explains. "You don't preserve a species by putting a fence around it. By working in the field, in the boardroom, with consumers, we get more value for our buck."

However, Napier denies that this new emphasis represents a blurring of territory which could threaten international development charities such as Oxfam. "We are not a development organisation, we're a conservation organisation. I sat down with the new head of Oxfam and we recognise that our aims are similar. The poor of the world depend on nature just as we do, only they can't buy their way out like the rich can."

Indeed, Napier predicts that WWF and the international development sector will increasingly collaborate. WWF and Oxfam jointly hosted a summit on environmental impacts in Cardiff this year and Napier wants to see more co-operation.

His corporate background has no doubt helped to steer WWF in these ambitious new directions. As a former chief executive at the roofing company Redland, he passionately believes that engagement with business is key to getting change on the agenda, and cites a recent example where his boardroom contacts helped to convince oil giant Shell that a pipeline project was exacerbating the problem of illegal logging in Brazil. "What people forget is that these companies are made up of individuals,

he says excitedly. "They understand our arguments; that sustainability is in their long-term interests, but they need help in getting there."

This attitude contrasts markedly with environmental charities Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. While Greenpeace has a policy of refusing corporate donations, WWF has cause-related marketing arrangements with Powergen and HSBC, and is in talks with energy and water companies, DIY retailers and mortgage providers.

The HSBC relationship has already led to a change in the bank's lending policies to do with water, says Napier, and will soon affect its forestry policy. Following the success of WWF's controversial "Who Cares?

campaign earlier this year, which made links between product choices and the environment, the charity has plans for another consumer campaign to promote the benefits of sustainable housing schemes. This appeal typifies WWF's businesslike approach and, combined with its conservation work on the ground, makes WWF unique, says Napier.

"No-one else is doing that combination. We're working in 40 countries. We're working in the field to stop poachers killing the Siberian tiger, for example. But the other half of our work is about making people think about the consumer choices they make - how the garden chair you buy at B&Q will have a direct impact on that tiger in Siberia,

he says.


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