Luhning on Sustainability: ‘It Must Be Sustained Through Generations’

Wells Fargo’s first Chief Sustainability Officer Robyn Luhning discusses themes that have been central to her career and continue to guide her as she leads the company’s sustainability efforts.
Apr 25, 2023 2:05 PM ET
Robyn Luhning, Chief Sustainability Officer
Robyn Luhning, Chief Sustainability Officer

Earth Month provides me with an opportunity to reflect on my experiences in sustainability, and more specifically, how they have shaped my career and led me to Wells Fargo as the company’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. As I look back, I see how the core themes of community, values, and impact have remained consistent throughout my career — and are especially relevant today.

During my time in Madagascar with the Peace Corps, I began to truly understand the importance of community, values, and impact. I gained new perspectives as a volunteer collaborating with a local group of women to create a women’s cooperative where artisans could sell sustainably made goods. I also worked with community members to find ways to transition the local economy away from slash and burn subsistence farming to viable economic activity associated with the newly designated national park and reserve areas. It required new approaches, such as building scenic hiking trails through the park instead of treacherous, but quick trading routes.

We worked together to find profitable uses of their own resources, such as marketable items made from local, fast-growing grasses. It was crucial that any economic growth stemming from the new ecotourism industry be aligned with the values of the community and that the positive impacts were shared across the many stakeholders involved, primarily the women and their children. This approach provides an important context to “sustainability,” underlining the fact that it must be able to be sustained through generations.

I drew from my experiences in Madagascar as I entered the next chapter of my career, which brought me to environmental and sustainability work with major corporations such as Vivendi Universal and Colgate Palmolive. Though an ocean away from my work in Madagascar, success in my new roles depended on the lessons I learned during my time abroad — how to engage with the local community, align in values, create positive impact, and find solutions that remain sustainable for generations.

Eventually, my path led me to Wells Fargo. I appreciated Wells Fargo’s role as a leader in building sustained economic opportunity within local communities. I could see the positive impact that Wells Fargo’s efforts to support homeownership and invest in small businesses had on underserved communities.

During my time as Wells Fargo’s Environmental and Social Impact manager, I collaborated with internal and external stakeholders to develop an approach for Wells Fargo to integrate its understanding of clients’ environmental and social risk management practices into its own practices. Much like in the local community I worked with in Madagascar, I found people who were interested in working together toward the same goal of economic and sustainable growth.

Today, as Wells Fargo’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, I have the responsibility of finding and supporting opportunities across the company that achieve positive, sustainable impacts. While this role may be new, sustainability at Wells Fargo is not. Our operations — including our buildings and functional activities — have been carbon neutral since 2019 and are becoming more sustainable with the growth of our clean energy contracts and company-owned solar power facilities. We have also made tremendous strides in meeting goals for waste and water reduction.

There is so much going on across our core businesses and throughout Wells Fargo relating to sustainability. I’m proud to work with leaders across the company who are growing business in sustainable finance throughout Wells Fargo by helping our clients and customers reach their own sustainability goals.

Since setting our sustainability goals in 2021, we’ve not only made significant progress in supporting the transition to a resilient, equitable, and sustainable future — but we’ve also uncovered growth opportunities for Wells Fargo’s business.

We deployed approximately $68 billion in 2021 toward our goal of $500 billion by 2030, funding a growing demand for products and services in this space. Whether it is $14.4 billion in tax equity financing to renewable projects across the U.S. or our two Inclusive Communities and Climate bonds totaling $3 billion, Wells Fargo is finding new opportunities while helping our clients and customers meet their sustainability goals. We’re in the middle of an energy transition that continues to evolve, and teams across the bank are working to meet our customers’ needs.

Wells Fargo also has a strong commitment to helping our most vulnerable communities have equal access to opportunities in the transition. We are creating positive impacts through our work with nonprofit Elevate in Chicago to decarbonize low-income housing and the Tides Foundation to build climate-resilient community centers.

I hope you join me to celebrate what we have accomplished so far and look to what we can accomplish in the future. I am confident that we can all be a part of the tremendous positive impact that sustainability can have in the communities where we live and work.

Written by: Robyn Luhning