Rising Stars in Sustainability: Jess Zeuner
For our Rising Stars series, we're featuring the next generation of leaders who are working toward a more sustainable world. We recently spoke with Jess Zeuner, a Program Specialist on the Plastic & Material Science team at World Wildlife Fund to learn about her role, her inspiration, and advice for those new to the field.
Describe your role for your company and what a typical day looks like.
As a Program Specialist on the Plastic & Material Science team at World Wildlife Fund, I support programs and partnerships that advance WWF’s vision of No Plastic in Nature by 2030. A typical day in my role includes collaborating with my colleagues on several projects and planning for upcoming events and workshops to engage stakeholders from across the plastics value chain. I’ve been with WWF for four years now and each day I am challenged to learn and grow in a dynamic environment, and I think that’s the best type of role a young professional could ask for.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in corporate sustainability?
I studied conservation biology as an undergraduate and worked on a research project measuring historical changes in oyster populations as it related to more recent climatic changes. I loved being in the field and exploring the paleontological record, but I remember having a conversation with my research advisor about the complexities of a problem like climate change and how research like ours fits into everything—which resulted in him recommending I investigate career paths in policy and systems level change. From there, I began taking a wide-angle approach to viewing environmental challenges, deep diving into the realms of government relations, sociology, resource management, energy politics, and more. I went on to get my masters in Global Environmental Policy, and ended up merging my interests for landscape conservation, policy, and sustainability.
While I started at WWF in an agricultural supply chain research role, I quickly became immersed in the organization’s initiatives that are changing the nature of business. Our vision on the Private Sector Engagement team is to partner with some of the world’s leading corporations to meet big conservation threats with an equally big response. We set high sustainability standards across operations that affect many sectors, and we lean on other departments like Policy & Government Affairs to drive public sector action. It is truly transformative work, a testament to the many passionate and driven “Pandas” (that’s what we call our staff) on the team.
What have you found most challenging and/or most rewarding about your work?
It is no secret that young people face a heightened level of existential dread in the wake of climate change and record-breaking biodiversity loss. As sustainability professionals, our day job is a battle for the future of our planet and of humanity. However, with this, I find my work to be incredibly rewarding in the sense that I have a very clear purpose each day and can often see the direct impact of my work, something that I hold onto closely for hope and clarity. My multidisciplinary background gives me a unique perspective and I realize how all the different roles and areas of expertise are so important to tackling these challenges head on. While I can’t be an expert in all of these spaces, I am confident that incredibly smart and passionate people are working in all different areas to drive for change and make impact. This is why I especially love to sit in on lunch-and-learn sessions where other teams at WWF share progress being made across many realms of conservation, including climate action, forestry and ocean conservation, food loss prevention, and more!
Talk about a project you’re currently working on.
One of my key roles on the team is leading the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, a multi-stakeholder forum of the world’s leading consumer brand companies that focuses on advancing knowledge of bioplastics. The Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance provides thought leadership on the role on the responsible sourcing of bioplastics, and the role of bioplastic in circular systems. Currently, 99% of new plastics are made from fossil fuels. Though many companies, consumers and governments are working hard to reduce our use of plastic, we still require some new plastic to meet our most critical needs – from keeping our foods fresh to our medications safe. But we don’t need to make plastic from fossil fuels. Plastic can be made from seaweed, agricultural wastes, and other plants that hold the potential to be more sustainable. However, plant-based plastic must be thoughtfully designed to build environmental, social, and economic resilience across ecosystems and communities. I recently helped write new Bioplastic 101 content for the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance website which communicates pathways to ensure plant-based plastic has a positive impact.
Do you have a sustainability role model or inspiration?
I continue to be inspired by the commitment to the natural world and enthusiasm of by my former professor at St. Lawrence University, Dr. Erika Barthelmess. Not only is Erika bringing up the next generation of conservation biologists, but she is also the Project Director for Nature Up North, an initiative to help foster place-based, environmental connections in Northern New York through environmental education opportunities and community events. I am especially inspired by Nature Up North’s Citizen Science programs and opportunities for people of all ages to explore and share encounters with wild things and wild places in New York’s North Country. These fun opportunities to get outside and learn about ecosystems directly feed into Erika’s work to help communities address shortcomings in regulation and natural resource management.
Talk about your favorite moment in nature.
One of my favorite outdoor hobbies is downhill skiing. I love the challenge of refining my skills off-piste while spending time in nature. A favorite moment from a recent ski trip was when I found myself in complete solitude on a trail with panoramic views and no one else in sight. The sky was so blue, the silence so loud. I had a similar experience a few years ago on a ridge trail overlooking a canyon with the Pacific Ocean in the distance where all I could hear were the birds nearby. I guess in this modern world my soul is chasing the not-so-common meditative thrill of silence and stillness.
What advice would you give to someone just beginning their career in corporate sustainability?
My best advice would be to seek out opportunities to learn more about stakeholder engagement as a mechanism for driving effective corporate social responsibility programs. Progress cannot be made in isolation, and it is so important that we identify all stakeholders, not only from the private sector but also local communities impacted by the work, policy makers, and other NGOs focused on the same issues. There are many courses available on this topic and learning on the job is also super valuable.
What are you excited about for the future?
I am excited about the progress being made by the United Nations to negotiate a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution. The negotiations are bringing together government negotiators, rights-holders, NGOs, scientists, and businesses, and WWF is advocating to ensure an ambitious, equitable and just treaty that reduces petrochemical and plastic production and consumption while also protecting people and planet with the support of a global community of activists. Individuals can get involved by signing this petition for No Plastic In Nature, and businesses can join the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.