Turning the ship around on sustainability

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Chester Cunningham (OM 1993), whose role in corporate sustainability could see him talking innovation with executives at IKEA one day, and building strategic partnerships in mining the next.

“Some days I frankly don’t know upside from down, but I’d get very bored doing the same thing over and over again,” Chester says. “I can see how rapidly we need to act on climate change, and I feel really passionate about finding ways to help the private sector lead the way.”

The slow process (and opportunity) of corporate change

Having first established his career working for the government in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Chester says he quickly realised the importance of corporations in making our world more sustainable.  

“I saw that governments couldn’t move until industries were ready to move,” he explains. “Big companies are like big ships out at sea. Turning them around is difficult and takes a long time but, with their resources, talent and reach, it’s where we need to start. We need to help companies do more than just tick the boxes, by showing them how they can grow in a planet-positive way that works for both their shareholders and society as a whole.”

“It’s important to work with some of the bigger, more problematic companies, and to demonstrate that there are opportunities to do things differently,” Chester adds. “If you only shout from the outside—as important as that is—you can’t affect real, systemic change. You have to work from the inside as well.”

Now working for sustainability advisory firm, Xynteo, Chester connects businesses who have similar problems so they can share the risks involved in making change and bring down the overall costs.

“Working in green steel, for example, we look at who makes it, who buys it, and everyone in between, to create a collaboration where, by sharing the load, everyone wins,” he says. “We bring in experts from everywhere across the world, across all industries, because we know often we have to zoom out in order to solve the problem completely.”

An in-built desire to give back

For Chester, the sense of responsibility that drives him is something he traces back to his roots.

“My mum Rosie is a member of the Grimwade family, and she was brought up on a value system that, if you have the means, you have a responsibility to give back to society,” he says. “It’s always in the back of my mind. So working in sustainability has been a natural fit for me.”

While at Melbourne Grammar, Chester served as Vice-Captain of the School in his final year. He says he now fully appreciates the breadth of experience he gained during his time here.

“The diversity of the curriculum at Melbourne Grammar is something I really appreciate,” he says. “It wasn’t just the academic side of things, but also the co-curricular activities, like the opportunity we had to travel to Papua New Guinea, that really gave me so much knowledge and perspective. I gained a sense of self-awareness while I was here, and I had the chance to shape my purpose in life through discussions with teachers and other students.”

Now living in Norway, Chester recently returned to Melbourne for his 30-year reunion, which was a chance to celebrate with friends he’s stayed in touch with since his Melbourne Grammar days. 

“I’ve got a really strong group of School friends,” he says. “We’ve had experiences that have bound us together and kept us connected.”