Meet the founder who made Mother Nature the company CEO

Sustainability has become a top priority for business leaders but plant-based cheese company Willicroft has gone one step further by elevating Mother Nature to the chief executive position

22. Mother Nature Ceo

Nature’s CV is looking rather impressive at the moment. Among its list of accomplishments are a seat on the board at beauty brand Faith In Nature, becoming the sole shareholder of the clothing company Patagonia and securing the CEO position at vegan cheese business Willicroft.

Brad Vanstone, co-founder of the Netherlands-based Willicroft, made the decision to appoint Mother Nature as CEO of the company in 2020. Explaining his reasoning, he says: “A lot of businesses start out with good intentions but the ebbs and flows of capitalism can too often change their course. We wanted to enshrine nature as our decision-maker and reason for existing.”

The business explored a number of different ways to achieve this, before eventually settling on appointing Mother Nature as its CEO – she even has a profile on LinkedIn. But Vanstone is keen for people to realise that this is more than just a symbolic gesture. 

In practice, this means that “every business decision is beholden to nature”, he says. This means that all employees have the environmental and social impacts front of mind when making a decision – whether that involves a full life-cycle assessment when creating a product or checking the environmental credentials of a new supplier.

Every business decision is beholden to nature

“As a plant-based company, you’re naturally drawn into environmental concerns,” Vanstone says. Cheese is the third highest-emitting food type behind beef and lamb and the emissions of Europe’s 20 biggest meat and dairy companies outstrips the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s clearly something which needs to be reduced,” he adds.

With Mother Nature as its chief executive, Willicroft sets an emissions target for all its products. “We’re always aiming to create a sizeable reduction in CO2 emissions in comparison to the dairy alternatives that we’re looking to replace,” he adds. Its Greek White holds the record for the biggest emissions reduction the company has achieved so far. The feta alternative produces 25 times less CO2 than its dairy-based counterpart and Vanstone is keen to see continued improvements in this area.

Working under a new chief executive has also had an impact on Vanstone’s own role and he claims to be much better versed in environmental and social issues as a result. “I never describe myself as CEO and I go to great lengths to make that point,” he adds. “I think it’s better to have a mission behind what you’re doing. It’s much easier to follow a set of values than a person.”

How do you make Mother Nature a CEO?

Vanstone admits that formalising the appointment of Mother Nature as a company CEO was not a straightforward process. Current corporate governance structures dictate who, or what, can own a business and the personification of nature is not currently on the list. 

However, Willicroft has put in place a number of governance structures to protect its environmental principles and ensure that Mother Nature is more than just a figurehead. The business is a registered B Corporation, which requires certified companies to amend their articles of association to formally demonstrate a commitment to being an environmentally and socially responsible business. 

Its power will come from having a recognised body running this

Willicroft also has a clause in its shareholder agreement that forces investors to divest from planet-harming industries, such as oil and gas companies, within a three-year period. Lastly, the company is in the process of establishing an impact board that sits above the supervisory and management boards and will be tasked with checking that the business is meeting its environmental and social commitments. 

“We want to ensure we remain focused on our mission, no matter what changes happen in the future,” Vanstone adds. “It’s definitely an evolving process.”

These changes have brought challenges when attracting new investors, but Vanstone claims that all the shareholders who were already involved in the business are “fully bought in”.

The biggest challenge for Vanstone has been trying to create a framework for the business to follow. “It’s all very well having environmentally conscious people running a business but how do you implement it?” he asks. “How do you authenticate that you are doing Mother Nature’s bidding to people outside the company?”

Helping more companies give nature a stake in the business

This framework is something that he is exploring further as he looks to encourage more businesses to appoint Mother Nature to an executive position. To date, 15 companies have signed up to a commitment to make nature a CEO on Willicroft’s website and Vanstone is now partnering with B Corp in the hope this can become part of a wider movement. 

“Its power will come from having a recognised body running this,” he says. “A framework gives something for other companies to follow and makes it possible for others to legitimately critique the businesses that are involved.”

His advice to other business leaders, who are earlier on in their sustainability journey, is not to hesitate. “Some companies are waiting for a golden moment, my advice would be to just start,” says Vanstone. This can be as simple as measuring the environmental impact of the business’s current operations. “Until you can put numbers behind what you’re doing, it’s really hard to quantify what your goals are or what exactly the problem is you’re trying to solve,” he adds. 

As climate change regulation is expanded, it may be the perfect time for more businesses to give Mother Nature a seat at the boardroom table. The EU has expanded its carbon border tax and more countries are exploring ways to introduce carbon pricing to help cut emissions. Vanstone adds: “It’s better to get ahead of those things, rather than wait for them to be enforced in a few years’ time.”

This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.