Awed by the wonders his naturalist grandfather pointed out during walks in the Vermont woods, Jim Leape dreamed of being a park ranger. That changed when Leape joined his high school debate team. “I decided I really liked being an advocate and set my sights on becoming an environmental lawyer,” said Leape, a newly appointed consulting professor at the Stanford Woods Institute and the Cox Consulting Professor in the School of Earth Sciences.

Leape, the former director general of WWF International, brings decades of experience in the conservation and sustainability fields. In his role with Woods, he will work on a range of global sustainability issues. Through research, writing and direct engagement with private and public sector leaders, Leape will focus on how to broaden business leadership on sustainability globally, and particularly in China.

“Stanford has an extraordinary depth of expertise in the many disciplines that are important to meeting the challenge of sustainability,” Leape said. “Crucially, through the Stanford Woods Institute, it is also a world leader in bringing those disciplines together to forge real solutions.  I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Leape served nine years as director general of WWF International and leader of the global WWF Network, a global non-profit conservation organization which has 6,000 staff working in more than 100 countries. Before taking that position, he directed the conservation and science program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, one of the largest philanthropies in the United States. He began his career bringing environmental protection cases in the U.S., advising the UN Environmental Program in Kenya and teaching law school.  He co-authored a leading text on American environmental law.

During his time at Stanford, Leape will be looking at what we’ve learned over the past three decades about how to shift the world on to a sustainable path, with a particular interest in how to drive sustainability into global markets.  In that context, he will be looking at the role of the private sector:

  • how businesses have begun to take a more active part in leading sustainability efforts, and how we can build on those initial efforts
  • how global business initiatives on sustainability can better engage China and Chinese companies.

“At a time when governments around the world are failing to come to grips with the fundamental challenge of building a society that can prosper within the limits of this planet, we are beginning to see business leaders step up to that challenge,” Leape said. “I think there are exciting opportunities to expand that business leadership, and to use it as a lever for driving change in global markets and ultimately for securing the action we need from governments.”

To reach business leaders, policymakers and philanthropists, Leape will write articles and opinion pieces, engage directly through extensive networks he has built during the past 30 years to bring key decisionmakers together to act on these issues, and bring ideas to discussions at international organizations he is involved with, such as the World Economic Forum and the China Council on International Cooperation in Environment and Development.

In his roles at WWF and the Packard Foundation, Leape worked with CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, including Unilever, Coca Cola, Ikea, HSBC, SAB Miller and Lafarge. He has worked with corporate interests in emerging economies such as China, Brazil, and India, and he has helped build broad coalitions of companies and governments to address issues such as water scarcity, deforestation, overfishing and climate change.

Leape’s broad experience with private sector engagement dovetails well with Woods’ work to share ideas and perspectives on how organizations can advance sustainability on their own, with academic partners, and by collaborating across sectors.

This past spring, Woods held its inaugural Business of Sustainability Summit. The new initiative to engage business leaders on sustainability issues, brought together leaders from 47 companies representing heads of R&D, engineering, global manufacturing, product development, innovation, finance, technology, public policy and government relations. Woods is planning similar meetings on how businesses can protect their assets from climate change impacts and the role of business in sustainable management of water resources.