Championing sustainability in both the finance and food space, Shila is a shining example of how to live out your values, both in your personal and professional life.
For over 15 years, Shila Wattamwar has played a role in the financial services industry, with a focus on sustainable investing for the last 8 years. As Global Head of the Retail & Wealth ESG Strategy and Strategic Partnerships at Sustainalytics-Morningstar, Shila is focused on providing the insights and tools needed for retail investors to best engage with sustainable investing. Along with her efforts at work, Shila believes in advancing sustainable behaviors holistically and runs a website called Sustainable Me! that provides a space for people to better engage in the topic of sustainability across many of the primary areas of their lives; from the food they eat, the clothes they wear, to the coffee they drink, their choices in travel, etc..., thus helping people live a holistic sustainable lifestyle. Shila also has a wonderful family including her husband and 2 young sons. She has a passion for cooking & wellness and working with Chefs for Impact allows her to engage in two of the areas she's most passionate about; sustainability and good food!
By Shila Wattamwar as told to Chefs for Impact
C4I: You run your own blog called Sustainable Me! while also having a full-time career as the global head of retail and wealth ESG strategy at Morning Star. What initially got you into the world of sustainability?
SW: That's actually not where I started my career. Where I started my career was in financial services on the indexing side, and that's when I first got exposed to this idea of sustainability.
I was with an index firm that started building market-based indexes on companies that were producing more renewable or efficient energy. So they were focused on things like water conservation, renewable energy, waste management. And that was really just a very high level intro to this whole idea of sustainability. And then I started researching it a little bit more just because I would hear it in my day to day life. Fast forward about eight years in my career, I had my second son, I was on maternity leave and I thought to myself, well, you know what, if I'm going to go back into the workforce, I really wanted to be in something that I enjoy and in which I can help make a difference.
And I started working for a nonprofit called CDP, Carbon Disclosure Project, and then very quickly actually I started working for Sustainalytics and I've been there since, and it's really offered me everything that I've wanted, in terms of being able to think about the broader topics around the sustainability of our world, both from the perspective of the environment, but also society and social behaviors. And here I am today, heading this strategy in the retail and wealth space at Morning Star.
And like you said, I'm running a website and blog called Sustainable Me! because I do think it's really important to think about sustainability more holistically. So while I focus on my day job in the investing space, I recognize that well, people are only going to invest in things or concepts that they feel a connection to. And that's what really motivated me to create the website where I could really unpack some of these connections to our daily lives.
C4I: How do you fuse these two areas of your life together? How does your financial background guide your food decision making processes and vice versa?
SW: It's all related, right? I mean, you need economics to be able to run companies and to be able to support a system that feeds into sustainable food. Understanding, let's say the negative impacts that can incur by not supporting sustainable practices. Understanding that really then does help me think about, well, how can we drive people to invest in this area?
It is so important for consumers and investors to really put their money in a way that supports and feeds into companies that are practicing these more sustainable initiatives. And while I don't think you have to necessarily pursue both sides of that coin, I think it strengthens it like when I'm out there speaking, even just from the investor perspective, having gained a little bit knowledge through my website around what this actually means on the ground, I can speak to it that much more passionately, that much more genuinely, and really kind of feel more motivated to push for the right economics in our society.
Consumer behavior plays a very big role in this. And so if we can get people to resonate more with sustainable food choices, or like I said, any facet of their life, then inevitably, it's going to make economic sense for these companies to know that and to think about that and position themselves well. And so those companies that are recognizing that, just inherently can be better investments.
C4I: So in the ESG investment space, how are consumer behaviors and consumer preferences shaping that landscape?
SW: We're seeing this manifest in what people are choosing. There's just an increasing number of wallets contributing to the investment side and they want to invest in areas that they feel a personal connection to. That's just a general trend that we see. What we find is that consumers are putting their money where their mouth is. Whether that be from the investment standpoint or whether that be from just the clothes that they wear, or the food that they buy, they want to feel that increasing personal connection to what they're doing. And they want to know that they're feeding into a positive impact. And I think that sometimes what we're finding is that utility of feeling connected and feeling like they're making a difference in the world is sometimes actually superseding some of the old benefits or maybe some of the more traditional benefits of, “is my investment dollar giving me the best performance” or “do these pants look good on me?”. There's more considerations. There's additional utilities that consumers seem to be getting out of where they're putting their money.
C4I: Do you have any tips, both in the personal and financial realms of how we can align our daily practices with our values across food?
SW: That actually is a big part of the website that I have. It's helping people make those more sustainable choices or at least the choices that align with what they value most. It is pretty easy nowadays, to be able to just pick the more sustainable brand versus the traditional brand, even from a cost standpoint. There's enough consumer demand for all of those things that we're not seeing tremendous differences in cost like we were about five to 10 years ago. So I think sometimes the power is just in knowledge, knowing what brands are sustainable, paying attention to that a little bit more will allow for people to just choose those. You could take that education a step further and really then understand the negative impacts, which to me, at least personally, really motivated me to practice that even more. So for instance, understanding how regular coffee beans may be farmed which may lead to unfair wage practices. Well, that knowledge has empowered me to make the choice of buying sustainable coffee.
C4I: What are some of your top sustainability tips for people with a busy career and or family lives? Are there any tips that you have that have worked for you to manage these changes in your daily habits?
SW: Yeah, I think my favorite way has been to engage my kids. As it is as a mother, I'm always looking at it for opportunities to teach them something. We call them “drive by lectures” at our house. So not only just teach them about it, but actually have them do something sustainable. So for instance, using cloth napkins instead of paper napkins, and a quick tidbit about why that's important. Or we started recently using detergent strips rather than liquid detergent to help on water conservation, or we order from imperfect foods rather than get everything from the grocery store. Explaining to them what it means for fruit to be “ugly” has been really engaging for them. It really does drive one of my missions which is to make sustainable behavior systemic. And I think that we can achieve that through teaching our kids and practicing a lot of these sustainability behaviors with our kids, so that as they're growing up, it's just their normal thing to do.
Second, it just keeps me in check because, if I forget to do something, my kids will enforce that upon me. And they will take any opportunity they can to make sure that I'm practicing what I'm preaching to them all the time.
C4I: What are some trends that you are seeing in your industry for 2022 and how are they, if at all, impacting the food industry?
SW: I think one of the biggest trends that I think will affect the food industry as well as others is regulation. So across the globe, we're seeing regulatory bodies, such as the SEC or the Department of Labor or the EU Commission come in and tell investment managers that they have to disclose what companies they're investing in. And that then in turn forces companies to disclose more on their sustainable practices, because if they're not disclosing, they could be left out of the opportunity on the investment side. And so there is really that nice kind of stakeholder effect between those two groups, the investors and the companies themselves. And so as companies that are forced to disclose and make some of their initiatives more transparent, I think two things will happen: one is they'll actually be held accountable for some of their sustainability practices or lack thereof, and two, the fact that they're even going to do the analysis and put this into their disclosures and their annual statements will hopefully allow them to see the economic benefits of pursuing some of these sustainability initiatives.
But even prior to that, again, people have cared about this. And so, um, you know, for a very long time, Investors have asked for this transparency. Um, and they have been wanting to know a little bit more around the companies that they're investing in and exposed to through their investments. And this really, like I said, it's icing on the cake.
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Chefs for Impact is a New York City based nonprofit organization educating children and adults about the environmental and well-being impact of healthy and sustainable foods.
Chefs for Impact collaborates with local schools and community centers, and organizes food and wine events as well as online instructional material.
The organization is supported by some of the food industry’s leading authorities, Michelin starred chefs, and sustainability experts.
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