Oliver Balch interviews the head of sustainability at Thai Union, who is winner of Ethical Corporation’s Business Leader of the Year award
Leadership, rightly, is inexorably tied to success. Leaders win, leaders emerge on top, leaders are … well … out in the lead.
The day before we interviewed Darian McBain, winner of Ethical Corporation’s Sustainability Leader of the Year, she was addressing a high-level panel on human rights at the United Nations in New York. A short while before, her employer, seafood producer Thai Union, was named top in its category in the prestigious Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
Such success, however, is the icing on the cake. So how do you go about making the actual cake? What are the critical ingredients, the recipe, the dos and don’ts?
For any sustainability leader hungry for success, McBain’s story offers a variety of invaluable pointers. These can be boiled down into three letters: POP. That’s to say, the right preparation, opportunities, and personal attributes.
Let’s start with preparation. Success doesn’t come overnight. It requires time and graft. McBain may have joined Thai Union just three short years ago, but her journey goes back much further than that.
As an engineer and scientist, you have a theory and you want to test that theory to prove whether it’s right or not
Her LinkedIn profile offers an early clue. She describes herself as an “engineer and scientist”. Her bachelor in engineering from the University of New South Wales (she is a native of Brisbane) taught her a lifelong love not just of science and technology, but also of problem-solving more generally.
“As an engineer and scientist, you have a theory and you want to test that theory to prove whether it’s right or not. If it’s incorrect, you ask what you need to adjust to change it,” she says.
Take communications while at sea. With no means to contact the shore, fishing trawlers have historically gone incommunicado – often for weeks at a time. The result is not only an absence of information about their catches, but also an inability of workers to report abuses, an issue that has rocked the industry in recent years, especially in Thailand.
With her solutions-oriented science hat firmly on, McBain considered how satellite communication technology could be adapted to resolve the situation for the distant water fleet. Working with a small group of partners, Thai Union piloted an onboard satellite system that allows for real-time electronic voice and data exchange. The Thai government has subsequently mandated all fishing companies to follow suit.
Likewise, under McBain’s watch, Thai Union was among the first to abolish the payment of recruitment fees for all workers in its factories and processing plants, a logical resolution to the problem of debt bondage that has placed an additional stain on the reputation of Thailand’s fishing industry.
McBain’s formal training has also given her an appetite for asking hard questions. From 2003 to 2007 she headed up efforts within the UK’s National Health Service to try and ensure its suppliers were acting as ethically and sustainably as possible.
I had this burning question of ‘how can you know what happens in a supply chain without actually going there?'
This pre-dated many of the transparency standards and audit systems now available today, she explains. The NHS was sourcing surgical instruments from Pakistan, say, or swabs from China, but with little or no visibility as to local workplace conditions.
“I had this burning question of ‘how can you know what happens in a supply chain without actually going there?’”
She quit her job, returned to Australia and spent another four years racking her brains to work out how social indicators could be better used to monitor supply chain practices. Her efforts led to a stack of academic articles, a PhD, and an in-depth guide for supply chain practitioners.
As much as McBain loves academia, putting theory into practice is what really gees her up, she says. “Theory is nice, but I like the more visible outcomes. If you can do something practically, that’s where I see real change occurring.”
This desire led her to engage directly with some of the trickiest topic areas within the corporate sustainability agenda. During a seven-year career as an independent adviser and consultant (a role she continued during her academic work), she racked up projects on palm oil, timber and conflict minerals, to name but a few.
In retrospect, it was all good preparation for life at Thai Union. After all, when she joined in mid-2015, her new employer was caught in the thick of an intentional furore over the industry’s human rights records. Barely were her feet under the desk when the New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Sea Slaves ¬– the human misery that feeds pets and livestock” (a reference to the company’s fish-based pet food brands like PetCare).
The fact that Thai Union was caught in the eye of a storm made it much more open to change
So did this baptism of fire make her want to turn and run for the door? Not a bit of it. The fact that Thai Union, a company with close to 50,000 employees and annual sales worth over €2 billion, was caught in the eye of a storm made it much more open to change, she pointed out. And this is where “opportunities”, the second word in the POP acronym, comes to mind.
Thai Union wasn’t singled out as having a particularly egregious track record, she is keen to point out. By her account, the accusations levelled against Thailand’s fishing industry were mostly directed towards smaller, less formalized companies.
For lawyers, it’s an important distinction; for the world’s media, it doesn’t matter a jot. The European Commission had just given Thailand a yellow card for illegal, unregulated fishing. The US Department of State had downgraded the country in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. To the average punter, every Thai seafood firm was, literally, in the same boat.
The whole sector, she readily accepts, was in dire straits. And her new company was in the thick of it: “When you work for a company called Thai Union in Thailand, it’s easy to think that it and the industry is one and the same.” She saw it as a great opportunity for Thai Union to take leadership and differentiate itself.
One of her first decisions in post was to commission an external evaluation of what leadership looked like in the sector. The answer: pretty dismal. Her second was to take Thai Union’s existing sustainability policies, tighten the areas that needed tightening, and then bring them all together as a coherent whole, branded the SeaChange strategy.
In a move that has become a characteristic of her management approach, she then shared the result with the wider public. Over a three-month period, everyone from Greenpeace’s campaign team to old ladies in Pittsburgh who fed PetCare to their cats were invited to provide feedback.
Now, nobody is able to say that this [sustainability] isn’t part of what we do in our business
“We were already in a position of being highly criticized, so in my view it was a time to show honesty and bravery,” she reasons.
The decision paid off. Not only did the strategy improve, many of the company’s critics came round to working with Thai Union rather than against it.
Later, following ongoing dialogue with Greenpeace, McBain agreed to publish a Vessel Code of Conduct with the aim of clarifying workers’ rights while onboard ship. Again, she engaged an atypical partner to play the role of critical friend: the International Transport Federation, a vocal union body.
The collaboration turned out to be “much more valuable” than she had at first anticipated, she says: “The experience helped improve our policy immeasurably because of the practicalities they have been able to bring to the process.”
Another opportunity she was keen to seize was the fact that, as head of sustainability, she was given a seat on Thai Union’s executive board. “People at least have to open the door to have the conversation,” she says. “Now, nobody is able to say that this [sustainability] isn’t part of what we do in our business.”
Having the right preparation and the right opportunity are all well and good, but they will not bring about change by themselves. Personal attributes such as vision, strategic thinking and persistence are required to push change.
Her tactic is always to sit down face-to-face with key influencers and make them understand why X, Y or Z change is required
Add to that some authentic Australian ballsiness – which McBain has in spades – and then you’ve really got yourself a fearsome formula.
In McBain’s experience, people are quick to accept change when there is a clear logic behind it. But even then, shifting practices and policies that have been in place for a long time is never easy.
Her tactic is always to sit down face-to-face with key influencers and make them understand why X, Y or Z change is required. It then makes sense to sit and listen to their point of view, she says. “And through that greater understanding, hopefully you can work together to bring about that more sustainable change.”
She passes on the same advice to her sustainability team, who number nine around the world. Her maxim is that sustainability exists to promote the cause of business, not to promote the cause of sustainability.
“I think this really helps. Because people know you’re not demanding change just because you want it for a sustainability outcome. You’re there to make the business more sustainable.”
This same empathy extends to her interactions with stakeholders outside the business. She insists that she is as happy speaking with someone on the shop floor as she is rubbing shoulders with the Princess of Sweden (with whom she works on the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship initiative) or UK development secretary Penny Mordaunt (with whom she appeared at the aforementioned UN meeting last month).
I don’t really look at it as how far I have come. But rather how much more there is to change
McBain describes winning Ethical Corporation’s Sustainable Leadership award as a “truly great honour”. She recalls reading a summary of the winning entrants seven or eight years ago, and being bowled over by the leadership exhibited by the winners. Now she is the one being feted, but is far from sanguine. McBain knows better than anyone the long journey that lies behind her current success.
She is also more than aware that her story doesn’t end here. The labour record of the Thai fishing sector can still be improved. The world’s oceans can still be cleaner. Work against human trafficking can still be accelerated.
“I don’t really look at it as how far I have come,” she says, “But rather how much more there is to change.”
CV: Darian McBain
Global director of sustainable development, Thai Union
2015 – present
Sustainable palm oil manager, WWF Australia
2014 – 2015
Managing director, Blue Sky Green consultancy
2007 – 2015
Sustainable development executive, NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency
2003 – 2007
External relations manager, International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds
2001 – 2003
Waste and environment manager, St George Hospital & Area Health Services
1997 – 2001
Regional operations officer, NSW Environment Protection Authority
1995 – 1997
fishing industry Human rights Thai Union Darian McBain Dow Jones Sustainability index sustainalble fishing