Navigating the World of Food

sustainable food

By: Bruce Hull, Josh Nease

Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) offers a variety of professional development and education programs that generate opportunities for students to cross paths with remarkable and successful sustainability professionals. Arlin Wasserman, current CLiGS fellow, is one such trailblazer.

After a decade of work focusing on sustainability and sustainable food systems, Arlin founded Changing Tastes, a consultancy focusing on the intersection of food and agriculture, sustainability, public health and demographics. Changing Tastes provides strategy, investment and innovation insights and services to Fortune 500 and Financial Times 500 companies, early stage growth companies, philanthropic institutions and government agencies in North America and Europe.

Arlin has maintained several positions related to food systems including being the founding President and later Policy Director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, a Food and Society Fellowship funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and work serving as the first Vice President of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility at Sodexo.

CLiGS recently had the opportunity to interview Arlin about his experiences as a leader and sustainability professional.

Q. We are particularly interested in learning about your role at Changing Tastes because it illustrates leadership qualities that CLiGS celebrates and promotes. Talk a bit about your role in that effort and how it came to be.

I founded Changing Tastes in 2003 just as I was ending my Food and Society fellowship with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. I had worked in local food systems, including the environmental and local economic benefits of having schools buy more fruits and vegetables from nearby farms, but I was interested in working at a larger scale, and using models that could be replicated even if an organization or community wasn’t fortunate enough to receive a grant from an outside philanthropy.

I saw a match between consumers’ interest in the place where food is grown, or authenticity, and the need of companies for supply chain transparency to incent sustainable agriculture practices and manage risk. So, I launched Changing Tastes to work at the intersection of those two interests.

Arlin WassermanQ. Leadership means different things to different people. How do you define leadership, and what is your leadership style or philosophy?

I believe leadership is about getting people inspired, aligned around a common vision, and then moving quickly. After that, smart people figure things out for themselves and a leader’s role is to stay out of the way unless I’m asked to help with an idea or by making a connection or introduction.

Getting moving in many corporate cultures often means breaking free of the daily and weekly obligations that weigh on most people. I’m a strong believer in off-site meetings that include full immersion through presentation, discussion and socializing. When we were asked to figure out why large foodservice companies were not making better progress on some aspects of sustainable sourcing, we didn’t just conduct an interview and research project, we invited executives to a 2-day retreat to figure out what they could do with their competitors to remove obstacles.

There’s nothing special in what I do. I was just fortunate enough to be inspired by Robert Fritz and his Path of Least Resistance approach and also to work with Peter Senge for several years and understand how one’s presence can help others to do what at some level they already know they should.

Q. We believe that collaboration and spanning boundaries are key to solving sustainable development challenges. Will you describe an instance in your professional life where you helped collaboration occur and how?

Recently, I was asked by a foundation working on seafood sustainability to find ways to increase their effectiveness in the foodservice industry. To date, many of the NGOs the fund had supported worked with individual companies, but progress had been slow and also difficult to measure. Our approach was to bring together the four largest companies in the industry to identify the obstacles to progress and better reporting, which was an unprecedented gathering of competitors. Out of that, we found that the four top problems were better solved by the industry, not individual companies, and set out a one-year action plan.

saladQ. What do you see as some of the top sustainability challenges of the next few years?  How will you and/or your organization address them?

Climate, water and protein. The intersection of affluence, diet and our current approach to food all exacerbate climate change and water scarcity. Most of our work focuses on changing dietary patterns to healthier and more sustainable diets, especially meals served by the largest restaurant and food companies. We also work on applying technology to supply chains so they can be more predictive and adaptive as weather patterns grows less so.

Q. Change is not always easy for people. What strategies have you found most effective for influencing changes in people and practices?

There’s no one answer because there are many ways that people react when they find out that change is necessary, from enthusiasm to dread. For some people, it is setting out the benefits of change, for others it is showing them their specific role during the change process and more importantly after it is completed. For others, it is creating enough tension between current and future scenarios that they realize change is preferable.

Thank you Arlin, we really appreciate your insight on these matters!

For more insight on being a leader for sustainability, read our interviews with other pioneers in the field.