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Green is Good

Ecostrategist Aimee Christensen ’91 is helping corporations see that reducing their environmental footprint is smart business

by Christina Barber-Just

When Duke Energy, by its own admission one of the biggest polluters in the United States, decided to tackle the problem of its ever-growing environmental footprint, the company turned to Aimée Christensen ’91 for help. So did Richard Branson, the swashbuckling billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of the Virgin Group, after he decided it was time for his companies to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

With high-profile clients like these, Christensen has become a go-to consultant for businesses and corporations around the world looking to adopt more environmentally friendly policies and practices and increase their green credibility. As the founder and CEO of the climate-consulting firm Christensen Global Strategies, Christensen collaborates with clients “to help them as they contribute to solving our greatest global challenges and creating a more healthy, prosperous, clean, and secure world,” she says. What that means, in essence, is that she specializes in making the business case for action on climate change by appealing to companies’ principles (“corporate responsibility”) as well as their pocketbooks (“financial incentives”). Though corporations account for the majority of her work, she’s also partnered with nonprofits, community-service organizations, universities, and governments. Among her firm’s accomplishments: working with the CEOs of Duke Energy, Dow Chemical, and Coca-Cola to demand action on climate change at the 2010 United Nations climate conference in Cancun, Mexico; and helping Branson build the Carbon War Room, a multimillion- dollar nonprofit focused on the large-scale reduction of climate-change pollution from greenhouse-gas emissions.

All of this has earned her accolades in the burgeoning green industry and a certain amount of respect among environmental activists. In 2010, the Aspen Institute awarded her a two-year Catto fellowship for environmental leadership, and in 2011 she became the third person and the first American to be named the Hillary Institute of International Leadership’s global laureate for exceptional leadership on addressing climate-change issues. (The institute is named for renowned mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary.) “By any measure her leadership and influence on climate-change-solutions work is outstanding,” Hillary Institute chair David Caygill said in a statement.

Christensen’s goal is to help her clients identify promising solutions to the problems they’re facing. Sometimes that means restructuring a business around environmental principles or setting up a new investment fund with green returns. One of her favorite solutions, though, is convincing companies to convert to clean-energy use. She advocates replacing dirty fuels like oil, gas, and coal with renewable, more energy-efficient wind, solar, and geothermal power—just as Christensen herself has swapped disposable water bottles and utensils for reusable ones, but on a much bigger scale. What’s more, she shows CEOs how making this change can actually benefit their bottom line. “Energy is a material cost to their company, and therefore if they reduce energy use they can reduce their costs and become more competitive,” she says. “When the companies start to see that there’s a business opportunity here, that’s where the change really starts to happen.”

The Virgin Group approached Christensen in 2007. She had gotten to know the group through Branson’s participation in the Clinton Global Initiative, a foundation established by former President Bill Clinton and a client of Christensen Global Strategies. Impressed with Branson’s commitment to issues of climate change, and “just feeling a synergy of approach,” Christensen signed on to advise Virgin Unite, the group’s charitable arm, “to help them determine how Virgin could lead on sustainability issues.”

For the next year and a half or so she devoted most of her time to the foundation. Virgin Unite wanted to invest in and bring attention to sustainable-development projects that succeeded in both alleviating poverty and protecting the environment, so Christensen searched the world for model projects, tapping her network all along the way. And when Branson set his sights on a wider assortment of environmental issues—specifically, pollution, fresh water, land use, and forests— Christensen brought in experts to brief him and his team on these issues and wrote up summary strategy papers that spelled out, in her words, “Here’s what the global challenge is, here are some promising solutions, and here’s what Virgin can do.” This is a good example of what Christensen does for her clients, she says. “It’s a combination of the depth of understanding the issue with the assets of the client and matching those.”

Pre-Virgin, Christensen put her consultancy on hold for part of 2006 and 2007 to work for Google.org, the search-engine giant’s philanthropic arm, as its “climate maven.” Her primary job was to help Google.org develop a strategy for addressing energy and environmental issues, but she also had a hand in its RechargeIT project, which showcased the potential of plug-in hybrid vehicles to dramatically improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Notably, RechargeIT was launched the same week Google itself announced it had gone carbon neutral. Christensen praises Google’s decision to pay for its pollution, saying the company took an “important leadership position” in this area. “If you’re going to go carbon neutral as a corporate strategy, then that helps you make good decisions now about going to clean energy knowing you’re going to have to pay for any pollution from energy that’s produced with greenhouse-gas emissions.”

In her consulting work, Christensen gravitates toward long-term CEOs who’ve realized they need to act on climate change. “Most of the leaders that I work for get it,” she says. “It resonates with them morally and ethically.” This is true of Jim Rogers, of Duke Energy, who, Christensen says, realized it was smart business to invest in protecting the environment. “I’m attracted to pragmatists,” she says. “Having a client who has noted numerous times that his company is the country’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide—the chief global-warming gas—but who also is advocating for climate-change regulation, for putting a price on his pollution, for putting a cap-and-trade system in place in the United States—he is a credible voice.”

Counting polluters among her clients would seem to present a conundrum for Christensen, but given that private corporations and investors now own the vast majority of global capital and infrastructure, she says, it makes sense to try to redirect all that capital to environmentally sustainable activities. “I have chosen to work directly with these corporations and investors, even recognizing that many have been the polluters of our past and present,” she says. “Without these partners, we are missing the majority of the global economy, and the sooner we support them in their efforts and help them to accelerate them and scale them, the better off we all will be.”

Christensen’s passion for the environment started as a child, thanks in large part to her mother, Ann Lindenberger Christensen ’56, a nature educator who took her daughter on her first Sierra Club hiking trip in a backpack baby carrier at the age of eight months. After majoring in anthropology and Latin American studies at Smith, Christensen, who can speak both Spanish and Portuguese, went on to become a policymaker, Stanford- educated lawyer, and campaign director, among other things. At Stanford, she spearheaded a new policy on investment responsibility that she says was the first of its kind on a university campus; at the US Department of Energy, where she shaped Latin American energy policy during the Clinton administration, she helped draft the first bilateral agreement on climate change. She also practiced law with major multinational corporations that wanted to act on climate change, and ran a national political campaign aimed at making Americans care enough about the environment to vote on it.

Since she launched her consulting firm in 2005, Christensen has kept a rock star’s travel schedule. She’s on the road from two-thirds to three-quarters of the year, rarely returning to her home base of Sun Valley, Idaho, where her family moved when she was thirteen years old and where her parents still live. The Quarterly interviewed Christensen, who is divorced and has no children, two times in 2011: once at Smith, where she gave a lecture to an environment-and-sustainability class, and once by phone in Durban, South Africa, where she was attending UN climate talks. Between October and November, when the interviews were conducted, her job had also taken her to San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC, domestically, and, overseas, to Copenhagen, Mexico City, and New Zealand. “I fly too much,” she says. “That’s a big part of my impact.”

Christensen offsets this impact by eschewing disposables—she doesn’t leave home without her Lifefactory glass water bottle and her To-Go Ware bamboo cutlery (tag line: “reduce your forkprint”)—and adhering to a strict vegan diet. “For the treatment of the planet from global-warming impact,” she says, “it’s the number one thing you can do as an individual, aside from addressing your flying and your drinking of bottled water.” She also does her best to wear vegan footwear and accessories. Her favorite boots are made of imitation leather. She’s had them for four years and keeps getting them resoled.

Such is the life of a globetrotting green consultant. “I feel like we’re in a great existential moment,” Christensen says. “The challenge in the past has been that the environment was seen as just a side issue. What more and more companies and governments are seeing is that sustainability, environmental issues, and clean energy actually are key strategic centerpieces to what they do.”

Photograph by Beth Perkins