It’s a known fact that climate change and the mass consumption of natural resources have progressively threatened both wildlife and humanity. As a result, businesses and organizations alike are beginning to realize that as the world’s population becomes increasingly aware of its carbon footprint, sustainability becomes a key player. That is why consumers are beginning to incorporate sustainability in the way they interact with businesses. According to a Cone Communications report, 87% of consumers said they’d purchase or support a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. But what does sustainability really mean? Acting sustainably means meeting the needs of the present without harming or compromising the future–or, to put it more simply, giving back at least as much as we take from nature. This is why organizations like zoos and aquariums have an exceptional opportunity to lead by example and engage the public in an important dialogue regarding environmental issues that presently exist.
Zoos and aquariums exist around the world and serve to educate the public about the environments and animals they care for–everything from your average deer to your almost-extinct rhinoceros. With that in mind, zoos and aquariums have the opportunity to create an environment that’s not only sustainable, but also educational in the way they interact with visitors. In fact, the best zoo and aquarium facilities take that service and extend it directly to the environment they aim to protect through the incorporation of sustainable design. I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Baribault, CEO at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance where we discussed the wider challenges of achieving a more sustainable society and how the zoos of tomorrows are at the forefront of this change.
Jeff Fromm: What do the best in-class zoos of tomorrow look like?
Paul A. Baribault: Due to the immediate challenges facing our planet, the work zoos do to conserve wildlife is more important now than ever before. Moving forward, I see zoos leaning further into innovative and collaborative solutions to improve conservation successes in-situ and ex-situ.
As public destinations, we are in the unique position of not only reaching millions of people every year, but also strengthening their connection to wildlife through the conservation work we support annually. We have the opportunity—and responsibility—to share authentic stories of nature with our guests, share with them what our wildlife care professionals and conservation scientists are seeing change around us, and serve as a voice for wildlife at large around the world.
We understand that our guests’ expectations are changing, and we want to meet them where they are. Leading zoos need to be always be innovating so our practices keep pace with what we’ve learned about the wildlife we care for. Part of keeping pace is being accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is today’s gold standard for ensuring the highest levels of care for wildlife.
Conservation starts with people. And, one of the biggest roles we can play is connecting the dots between the people who visit our parks—the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park—and the natural world. We want to do this authentically, where our stories are reflections of the extensive conservation work we pursue with partners across the globe. This approach gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the collective power we all have to make a difference in the health of our planet. As Dr. Jane Goodall reminds us, every action matters and every individual can make a difference.
Fromm: What are the biggest challenges you have with telling your sustainability stories? What is the media just not getting? And are there messages that do resonate?
Baribault: We want to make sure we are telling our whole story and give the public the opportunity to join us on the journey, and that includes the media organizations that work with us. We have been pretty lucky. We work with fantastic media professionals who understand the importance of saving wildlife. Their passion is palpable. One of the threads we try to weave for media is the connection between the work we do at the Zoo and the Safari Park, and the feet-on-the-ground work we do in native habitats around the world. Whether it’s sharing our successful condor program, elephant milk study, famous panda work, polar bear studies, burrowing owl reintroductions, or white rhino rescue center achievements, all are examples of innovative work being done locally at our parks that extends out into the field with our partners, helping wildlife in their native habitats. Efforts that would be impossible to support the way we do without what we learn caring for these magnificent species at our Zoo and Park. This connection is everything and fuels work that is proving to be game-changing in the field due to our depth of expertise in caring for wildlife.
Another element we strive to emphasize is the sustainability work our architects, designers, and builders do when establishing new habitats at the Zoo and Safari Park. For example, the design of our new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp and our Hummingbird and Komodo dragon habitats incorporated advanced sustainable materials throughout. One is a system that is 100% recyclable and consists of a series of custom-sized Teflon multilayers—or “air pillows”—which, when filled with air, provide solar insulation while also reducing the need for artificial lighting.
Fromm: As a result of the pandemic, what changes to the customer experience do you see being permanent? (ex: length of time they’re planning, further out, buying tickets online)
Baribault: We made quite a few changes at the Zoo and Safari Park to comply with CDC guidelines at the time. Some of those changes have proven to be a real success with our visitors, such as our new Mobile App and touchless systems, which have modernized the guest experience and help us increase our sustainability practices in several areas of our operations. We have also created experiences focusing on smaller family group sizes, as guests have wanted to stay more as a family unit. This has allowed us to reimagine some experiences and have proven to be a benefit to both our guests and our operations. Since the pandemic, we’ve also seen a healthy increase of guests from neighboring markets, such as Los Angeles, Arizona, and others. This new dynamic allows us to invest in making greater connections with those communities.
Fromm: What can other CEOs and CMOs learn from your sustainability practices (not just zoos)?
Baribault: As CEO, I’ve come to understand that the collective passion of an organization’s team members is vital to its success. I’m very lucky to work with some incredibly talented individuals. Our organization’s sustainability practices align with our vision of “a world where all life thrives.” We say it a lot, but it’s our core conservation mission, and truly the guiding principle at the core of the work done at every level of the organization. From our front-line staff to our scientists, to our corporate employees; each team members’ commitment to uphold this principle is important, and is the common thread that binds all of us together in our mission.
Another huge component for organizations working directly with the public is sharing and creating education opportunities along the way. If we can share our current practices and goals for the future with our guests, and get them inspired to be more sustainable in their own lives, then we can help them be better stewards of our environment as well. We have invested in battery back-up technologies to help us shave the peaks off of our electricity needs. This helps us alleviate pressure from the power grid during peak times, creating more capacity to support the needs of our fellow San Diegans.
Fromm: How are your local partners looking to you for sustainability leadership?
Baribault: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has had over 100 years of proven leadership—not only in our community, but around the world. We’ve been fortunate to have so much support from our members and guests, which has allowed us to accomplish extraordinary feats. One of the things I’m proud of is our work toward being self-sufficient with our browse program. While we still have a ways to go, we were recently able to acquire more farmland to increase the browse we offer to our wildlife.