Diana Verde Nieto puts the chic into sustainability

Diane Verde Nieto left a dictatorship in Argentina to become an entrepreneur in London. She worked in sustainability before it was on everyone's lips, saw the approaching wave of sustainability apathy and set about making it chic. 

Diana Verde Nieto studied at the Harvard Kennedy School on Global Leadership and Public Policy and was selected for the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader programme in 2011, for which she now sits on the advisory board. 

She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council for Sustainable Consumption and was trained by Bill Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore. Diana is a businesswoman with passion and through Positive Luxury – an award-winning membership programme for companies that demonstrate sustainability – she is changing prevailing attitudes and behaviour, and creating a global movement with sustainability at its core.

For me success is beyond power and money.

Global recognition and status as an international business leader would have seemed a long way off for a young, Argentinian-born Diana however.

Pioneers Post: How have your experiences growing up shaped the decisions you’ve made in your career and your passion to create positive social change through business?

Diana Verde Nieto: I was born into the dictatorship in Argentina and always wanted the opportunity to make a difference – to be fair to people and societies. 

I was ten-years-old when the regime came to an end in 1982. I remember armed soldiers everywhere on my way to school. They were there to stop us talking to each other anywhere outside of the school premises. People could not talk in groups of more than three…the mood in the streets was always very fearful.

When I was older I understood what it all meant and I wanted to be a human rights lawyer but I never had the courage whilst living in Argentina because I feared the consequences. So I went into business instead.

A sustainable career

Diana arrived in the UK at the age of 22. Finding work was initially a challenge because at this point, despite being able to speak four languages, her English was not very good. Diana found work dog walking before eventually getting a job at BBC Worldwide. 

Following stints at Virgin and a few ‘dot.com’ companies, she set up Clownfish, a pioneering global sustainability consultancy. 

PP: How would you describe your experience setting up your first business and then going on to sell it five years later?

DVN: Back in 2002, when sustainability was even more confusing and unpopular than it is today, I founded Clownfish. We grew from a London based consultancy to an international agency with offices in Shanghai, New York, Milan and Madrid. We built the company when sustainability was not on people's radars.

I sold the business to a media agency in 2008 and stepped down as CEO in 2010. The buzz of having built and sold a business was short lived. I had achieved conventional success but I felt like I had failed. 

For me success is beyond power and money, so I felt that I had not achieved what I had set out to do which was to normalise sustainability. Sustainability had become a dirty word, was considered un-chic and inspired the consumer with nothing but apathy. 

PP: What drove you to create Positive Luxury, which you co-founded with Karen Hanton, founder of TopTable, an online restaurant booking platform?

DVN: I wanted to start a business that moved away from the rhetoric of sustainability and instead, became a crusade of positivity (I was taking no prisoners). I wanted to unlock the potential brand value of sustainability and create a platform that allowed consumers to make informed decisions about the brands they were buying from.

Sustainability is now an essential ingredient for a company's long-term success.

Consumers have little knowledge about the value chain of companies, and frankly it’s not at the forefront of their minds when they buy into a product or service. Having said that, people want to do the right thing, so providing consumers with relevant information about a company’s actions, at the point of sale, allows them to make more informed choices and generates revenue. An immediately identifiable trust mark, which stood for recognised values, was needed.

In the past 13 months, more than 300 brands have received The Butterfly Mark – Positive Luxury’s trust mark awarded to brands in recognition of the responsible way in which they manage product production, environmental resources, employee relations, distribution and other aspects of their operations.

PP: How has the concept of sustainability in business evolved throughout your career so far?

DVN: Thankfully broader social concern for sustainability has grown from a dull topic in the early 2000s, to a dominant theme today. Leaders of major corporations worldwide are increasingly facing the challenge of managing organisations that meet the expectations of a broad range of stakeholders (often themselves in conflict), while still delivering a substantial return to shareholders. As a result, sustainability is now an essential ingredient for a company's long-term success.
Consumers are increasingly aware of issues throughout the value chain – for example labour, toxic chemicals and philanthropy. Companies are moving from Corporate Social Responsibility to social innovation that includes the environment - healthy people, healthy planet - and this is becoming embedded deeply into the core of their business. 
For consumers it’s about trust. Which can brand can they trust? This is underpinned by the positive actions that brands are taking to have a positive impact on society whilst minimising their environmental footprint. 

Lessons on leadership

PP: What valuable lessons have you learnt that you can pass on to aspiring leaders?

DVN: The best way to learn leadership is to practise it. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and always make time to listen to your employees. Good actions foster even better actions. 

Leadership is not something you do to people but with people. It works as an exchange and interaction – a two-way road.

In my view what makes a good leader is the ability to inspire, be approachable, empathetic and to be honest.

PP: What qualities do good leaders have and which leaders inspire you? 

DVN: Anyone no matter title or position in society can be a potential leader in his or her community, job, school, etc. In my view what makes a good leader is the ability to inspire, be approachable, empathetic and to be honest.

There are many people who I admire for their leadership skills – namely Bill Clinton, Sergey Brin, Larry Brin, Sir Alex Ferguson and Marisa Mayer. What they all have in common is that they are approachable and therefore are able to inspire others. 

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Photo credit: Anna Michell