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Pioneering Sustainability: A fireside chat with Roberto Marques, Former Chair and CEO of Natura &Co.

  • July 2023

With sustainability in its roots, Natura’s foundation is built on the idea of reconciling socioecological sustainability with profitability. We had the pleasure of interviewing Roberto Marques, the former chair and CEO of Natura &Co, a purpose-driven group of iconic brands including Avon and The Body Shop. Marques spearheaded the transformation of Natura to a truly global, omnichannel business that has sustainability as the guiding force behind all it does. 

It was inspiring to hear about forward-looking ideas on how leaders can break old paradigms to foster collaboration rather than competition, the notion of reconciling sustainability and profitability as one, and how leaders should embrace humility, self-awareness, and intellectual curiosity as levers for meaningful progress. 

During your time as CEO and chair, how did you continue to foster Natura’s deep sustainability focus and commitment among employees, especially as the company scaled into new markets and made some major acquisitions? 

Natura believes that companies have a license to operate in society, and not the other way around. I was lucky enough to join the company, and it became a dream to expand and become an enterprise. Our acquisitions, such as The Body Shop, Aesop, and Avon, were driven by sustainability principles. The focus was to embed sustainability at the core of these companies’ strategic planning, and that’s how we started to see traction in this purpose. 

When you have to make sustainability and profitability decisions, those two things can coexist.  Sustainability drives innovation. A lot of products are based on the notion of more sustainable sourcing, recycling, circularity in the economy, which consumers want to buy now. And people want to work for companies that care about those things. 

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you embed sustainability in your core strategy, the better you'll be able to reconcile how a company can be more sustainable and profitable.  There is a belief from Anita Roddick [founder of The Body Shop] that truly resonates, which is that business could be a force for good.

As you were scaling sustainability efforts in the company across multiple brands, did the sustainability goals ever have tension with business objectives? 

Were there challenging moments in the board and involving suppliers and scaling solutions? Yes. But because sustainability goals were embedded into the scorecard of the company, we could hold the company and the board accountable. When we set the scorecard, we could track progress on each of the individual companies, but equally important we are looking at progress, especially in the environmental and social dimensions. That is key. 

Are there key competencies or qualities that boards should possess to oversee and drive the integration of ESG into the core of a company's sustainability journey?

Humility, intellectual curiosity, and believing in science are critical qualities. Boards shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. There is a vast ecosystem of scientific resources, organizations and technology to help companies across all sectors move in that direction and establish a good baseline. Ask, “What's going on, what's the baseline, and how do I get help?”

At Natura, even with our vast knowledge, we brought an external company in to teach us how to establish an emission baseline on Scopes 1, 2, and 3, and each one of our companies works in a very different way of understanding how to navigate that.

It's pure and simple. There's no plan B, only plan A. We have to start making the right decisions and start incorporating sustainability in order for those businesses to continue to exist, attract employees, and sell to customers. 

How did you leverage diversity and inclusion to drive better sustainability outcomes in companies, employees, and communities?

As we were expanding, it became very clear that we needed talent with different backgrounds and experiences. People with the notion of being uncomfortable all the time, not afraid to dream big, and understand that sustainable growth is as imperative as addressing sustainable injustice, particularly in developing countries that are not able to figure this out on their own.

We also intentionally partner with our competitors because if we can't scale up solutions in packaging, for example, we cannot move the needle. This coexistence was unimaginable in the past, but it’s how we drive common solutions in the same industry to scale things up now.  Diversity of thinking and openness to challenge ideas is critical.

For boards that haven’t embedded sustainability into their work, what would you like them to know? 

Sustainability is coming like a wave, and there's no way back. Companies need to understand how to stay relevant with their consumers and how to attract talent. We need to make sure that board members understand that, and that sustainable growth leads to innovation. Then it becomes much easier to spark that curiosity to drive the agenda. Additionally, there's enough data to show consumers are making decisions on companies and products based on their approach to ESG. B2B is also important for Scope 3 emissions.

In your view, which function of a company is best suited to embed sustainability into the daily life and DNA of a company?

Supply chain and R&D. All innovation needs to be driven with these teams. At Natura, every scientist has a calculator to understand the impact on the environment. They know exactly what's going to be the impact on the environment before they develop the formulation. We have scientists in the Amazon Forest talking about biodiversity, engaging the community, and we work on supply chain solutions at scale.

Are start-ups and smaller organizations able to do a better job of baking in sustainability at their core? What could larger enterprises learn from them, and vice versa?

Natura is just one successful example, and there are other great examples of companies doing even better. Ultimately, sustainability is not a one-company, one-sector solution. It is about the power of the collective. It needs to advance from an ecosystem’s perspective. There exist a lot of rules and regulations that need to be challenged, and solutions need collective planning in the same sector by forming coalitions, not in isolation. The times when CEOs and chairs were rewarded by being successful while others fail are gone. That notion will dictate the most successful companies, countries, and individuals.

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Written by
Catherine Zhu
Catherine Zhu
Catherine Zhu, based in Toronto, is Egon Zehnder’s Global Head of the Sustainability Practice. She is a trusted advisor to boards…
Cheryl Soltis Martel
Cheryl Soltis Martel
Washington DC
Cheryl Soltis Martel, based in Washington DC, is the Global Head of Content at Egon Zehnder.
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