Meet Lilian Liu, a strategist working to change the world for the better through sustainable business.
Introduce yourself and your work with Futerra.My job as a sustainability strategist is focused on helping businesses do better for society and our shared home, while ensuring they can stay resilient and future-proof their business!
Futerra is a sustainability consulting and creative agency in one. We talk about our work as ‘logic’ and ‘magic’, with the logic side being focused on the strategy, commitments, and roadmaps for change, while the magic is the communications and activations you need to bring people with you and spread your message. It’s amazing to be able to bring both these aspects to our projects–without the strategy you risk engaging in greenwashing, without the creative and communications few will know about what you are doing, and it’s difficult to build the movement that we need to succeed.
What first got you interested in sustainability?I grew up in Sweden but spent a lot of time in China, where my extended family is, throughout my childhood. I got to see two sides of development–on the one hand you had a stable society with a welfare state and gender equality, and on the other hand a rapidly changing country where millions were getting out of poverty–it was an exciting time but the growing economy had big impacts on the environment. I was able to see some of those developments in China first-hand. Each summer when I came back to visit, the city had more skyscrapers, more cars, more air pollution. I was interested in figuring out how to develop a society in a balanced, sustainable way that could benefit the economy and people as well as the planet, and got more and more interested in sustainability.
For a few years I had the privilege to work at the UN Global Compact helping companies advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 goals set collectively by governments around the world to be achieved by 2030. This is where I learned a lot about the complexities of sustainable business and policy. Sustainability can have a lot of meanings depending on the local context.
How do better businesses create better societies?They can do so by thinking holistically about their economic, social, and environmental impact–minimizing any harm their business may create, while maximizing the positive impacts that they have. This needs to be holistic, from operations and culture, to product, and across the value chain and their communities.
What’s the first step businesses can take toward becoming more sustainable?The first step is understanding impacts–both negative and positive. The majority of businesses are still figuring out how to minimize their negative environmental footprint, taking care of things like waste and pollution. But the most ambitious ones go beyond that and try to give back more than they take, for example, through hiring intentionally to uplift marginalized groups, or working to regenerate local ecosystems through carbon capture or water restoration projects.
What does being a sustainable strategist mean?The main job of a sustainability strategist is a deep understanding of sustainability issues and how companies play a part, and thinking strategically about solutions and constantly pushing companies to be bolder and better. You have to be persuasive and show that you understand both the challenges and the opportunities. At Futerra, projects can range from helping a company set a sustainability framework across the full range of ESG, or honing in on an issue like carbon, water, or women’s empowerment
Which is more urgent for a sustainable future: individual action or lobbying corporations or both?A better future is not going to come by itself, we're all going to work for it, including dealing with our single-use habits and fast consumption culture. But I do believe there is a bigger responsibility on corporations. It is a systems problem and the onus should not mainly be on consumers. Companies are making profits and they have been part of fueling a system of overproduction and putting profit first, which is then fueled by advertising and media that makes us believe that we aren't good enough if we don't buy new things. Sustainable consumerism is a privilege that not everyone can afford, because the reality is, sustainable options are often more expensive or harder to find. Companies should work hard to make more sustainable options the default and not charge a premium for it. And it is also really important that our governments take responsibility to put in place policies that push companies in uncomfortable places.
There will be some sacrifice necessary, initial investments by companies to pivot–real environmental and social change is not easy–but this will help them build resilience in the long term.
How has your work with global organizations, like the United Nations, shaped your view of climate action?The UN is a unique organization and really the only platform where all nations of the world can come together. Working at the UN I understood quickly how climate change doesn’t impact countries equally across the world, and that many countries in the Global South are suffering the most from climate change. Representation was key in the day-to-day work at the UN, more than any other place I have worked. However, there is still a lot more work to do when it comes to bringing diverse voices to the climate discussions.
What advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing careers in sustainability?Careers in sustainability can be a lot of things, so first of all, figure out your angle. Do you want to focus on a specific industry, or work across sectors but with a specific sustainability issue at the forefront? Then try to get education and experience based on that focus. Find people you admire and look at their trajectories for a sense of how they got to where they are. That should give you a sense of the skills required for the job you want.
In the end, it is about figuring out what issues you care about and what you are good at, and then influence positively through your sphere and using your superpowers, whether it’s arts, music, food, or other industries. We need sustainability everywhere.
Most embarrassing fashion trend you participated in?When I was 15 or 16 I had a short stint where I’d weave steel thread in my hair and make little braids that stood straight up from my head like antennas. It was probably more of an experiment than a trend. Incredibly enough I don’t have any photos of that time.
Which of the four languages you know was the most challenging to learn?Definitely Chinese! It was the easiest and hardest. Because my parents spoke it at home and sent me to Saturday school for it (for which I used to be bitter but now am grateful) it was easy to pick up, but overall it’s a tough one to learn. The way the language is built works very differently from a Germanic or Roman language and there are so many characters to remember! You need to know about 3000 characters to read a newspaper.