Andrew Hutson: How Hiking in Honduras Inspires Corporate Sustainability Career

In Chapter 5 of 16, environmental management expert Andrew Hutson shares the experience that prompted his corporate sustainability career. Hutson returns to Honduras, where he had worked previously, to assist with Hurricane Mitch recovery efforts. While hiking, he learns about polluted pineapple grove irrigation drainage into the Bonita river. He finds the government turns a blind eye to corporations and asks himself "how do you get a company to change behavior for the better that will have an impact on people's lives?" This starts an academic odyssey that eventually lands Hutson at Wal-Mart providing environmental sustainability leadership on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund.


Erik Michielsen: What did your return trip to Honduras post Hurricane Mitch do to shape your views on what the private sector can do to make an environmental impact on the world?

Andrew Hutson: I went back to Honduras, I had been there for this nature guide-training program that I was volunteering with and then I went home and almost immediately or a couple months after I had gotten home Hurricane Mitch hit and it was just absolute destruction and a couple of my friends had lost their homes. 

So I went down there, basically I was working as a waiter I was sort of between… I was doing nothing, so I went down there I was like ‘Look, I’ve got a couple of hands and can help you do what ever you need done.’ And so I went back down and I was with a friend looking at the site where he was building his new home and the next day we went out on a hike, he was a nature guide in Picabonito national park which is near the city of Los Cellas beautiful cloud forest. 

And we were hiking then on the way back you have to cross pineapple groves, like a pineapple plantation on the way back to the high way so we were walking through the pineapple plantation we were going to catch the bus to go back into town and if you look in the irrigation channels there’s all… kind of frothy and really full of pesticides and fertilizers and just really nasty stuff and I naively asked him ‘You know, where does this drain? Where does this go?’ and he said ‘Well this goes to the Bonito River.’ And I’d just been there the day before and I so I again, kind of naively, went again ‘Well that can’t be, you know there’s kids swimming there. I saw kids playing in the water I saw a woman washing her clothes.’ And he kind of shrugged his shoulders and went like ‘Yeah.’ And again on top of that I said ‘Well what does the government do about that?’ and he kind of looks at me and shook his head, he’s like ‘Man, this is Honduras, what do you think? You know, the fruit companies kind of run everything, there’s very little we can do.’ 

And so in my own head I was thinking ‘Well if the government's not going to do anything, either they’re unwilling or not capable of acting at something like this, how do you get a company then to change its behavior for the better that will have a real impact on people’s lives?’ And that was ultimately a question that sent me back to grad school and sent me on [laughs] almost decade long odyssey in graduate school to think about the answer to that question and I’m not sure I’ve answered it fully yet but I’m getting closer and its what I try to do every day.