Alison Rowe: Face of WOB for Standing Out in the field of Advocacy & Sustainability

Alison Rowe has extensive Environmental Social Governance (ESG) experience, including global responsibility for strategy development, delivering transformation programs, commercialising new business models, community development and advocacy. She has led the establishment and scaling up of sustainability consulting practices internationally and organisation growth in purpose led organisations.

Alison is the Managing Director for The Nature Conservancy Australia and a Non – Executive Director at Edge Environment. She has held previous Board positions at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Australian Energy Foundation, Future Business Council, Bioregional Australia, Climate Alliance, Environment Victoria and One in Five.


What made you dedicate your career to sustainability?

Growing up in regional Victoria, I have witnessed, like many of us, the impact of drought on countries and towns. I know that the beauty of nature and the happiness it brings us cannot be taken for granted. It’s the need to protect Australia’s nature and the communities intrinsically linked to it that shaped my decision, at 18 years of age, to join the Australian Navy in order to protect the shorelines of Australia.

The sustainability bug bit about 15 years ago. I was faced with a sustainability challenge in my job at the time. We designed an environmentally-friendly solution that required a business case to go to the Board. At that time, I was participating in the Williamson Community Leadership Program, which included a whole day workshop dedicated to the environment. Also around that time, Al Gore released his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. These three events within a short timeframe really brought things together for me. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to sustainability: I wanted to leave the world a better place than I had found it. 

What is your proudest achievement  in this field to date?

Getting the business case on sustainability cleared and committed to by the Board at Transurban is one my proudest professional achievements. Another one has been to lead the global sustainability agenda focused on the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency at Fujitsu. As the Global Head of Sustainability for Fujitsu, I created and led a sustainability consulting practice across the UK, the USA and Australia. I honed my expertise in sustainability through to the diverse encounters and conversations the practice brought me.

On a more personal note, my proudest achievement to date has been to understand that I needed to align my professional values with my personal altruistic values. I left the corporate sector six years ago and have since then dedicated the rest of my career to sustainability in the not-for-profit sector. 

What have been the biggest challenges in creating change and making a difference in this field?

Currently one of the main challenges of ESG, but one that makes it so exciting too, is that ESG is an ever-evolving concept. It has moved from the back page of an annual report to a dominant theme in corporate governance which encompasses climate change and risk, but also the culture of a workplace, its social license to operate and many more aspects of the business.

People still need to understand the practical implications of ESG for operations. To keep driving forward ESG at Board level requires tenacity and resilience, but it’s a challenge worth fighting for every day.

One of my major concerns - and passions - in sustainability is that natural capital is not part of the financial system. Nature is an asset that is simply missing from balance sheets around the world. We know that over half of the world’s GDP US$44 trillion is dependent on nature and its ecosystem services (for example, pollination services bees provide to agriculture, water purification and coastal protection ecosystems like mangroves and reefs provide to coastal communities). Nature underpins the economy by providing these essential services. And they are not accounted for. 

At the same time, we are facing the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss which threaten these essential ecosystems and the services they provide. There needs to be a massive investment in nature to close the gap. This can only happen through reallocation of capital, finally taking into account the vital role nature plays for our economies and livelihoods.

We’ve already seen positive steps in that direction. For example, the Taskforce for Nature-Related Financial Disclosures formed in June 2021 is likely to set the benchmark for nature risk disclosure in Australia. Addressing climate risk is part of the directors’ fiduciary duty. It will ultimately influence the ability of Australian business to access capital. 

A significant challenge remains the general lack of understanding of the impact and scale of climate change, which is also what gives me the strongest motivation to keep working, every day, with The Nature Conservancy’s corporate, government and community partners, and give nature the recognition and valuation it deserves. 

Why is it so important for more women to be involved at a Board and leadership level in promoting awareness around sustainability?

One of the key aspects of sustainability is diversity. We need more diversity – gender and non-gender, cultural, age diversity - on boards and leadership roles. 

Research led by the Nature Conservancy has shown that when women lead conservation initiatives, indicators of success like solidarity, rule compliance and forest and fishery regeneration often go up, even as women face doubt, discrimination and even threats of violence. Women bring a more holistic approach to conservation, with different views on what communities need from their natural environment. They are also more likely to work on near-term compromises in order to then expand conservation projects.

When addressing issues such as sustainability and climate change, which have so many facets and ramifications for our societies, we need a diversity of perspectives and of approaches. To do that, we need people with diverse experiences and journeys.

How are organisations expected to engage and retain their talent if their Board and leadership levels do not mirror the diversity of this talent? How are we expected to talk to communities about climate change and climate solutions if we are unable to understand the way people approach the issue? How can we anticipate risk if we do not have the diversity at Board and leadership level which will allow us to think about the different types of risk in the first place? Board and leadership roles need to reflect the diversity of the world they serve.

How has joining Women on Boards helped you in your Board career, and also in your chosen field?

Being a member of Women on Boards is a great privilege and has been an incredible asset, not only for me to build a strong board profile, but also because it has introduced me to a vibrant network of fantastic women. The opportunities to network with other directors through events are invaluable and I always leave an event feeling like I have taken away something that will make me stronger, not only as a director, but as a person.

I was fortunate enough to speak in front of all the members last year on ESG. Being part of the network allowed me to continue the relationships with all the wonderful women of Women on Boards through emails and LinkedIn, furthering the conversation around ESG. This, to me, is the start of the pathway to success for ESG.

What does being chosen as one of the Faces of WOB mean to you?

I am very proud of being chosen as one of the Faces of Women on Boards, and humbled by the amazing women who are also part of the network I’ve joined. I am proud to contribute to the conversation around women in leadership because having more women on boards and leadership roles simply makes sense: it creates better outcomes for ESG, sustainability and society.