“In politics and society, wrong decisions are made that are a disadvantage to our natural world and environment – decisions which can and must be criticised. But we should not limit ourselves to criticism, wherever we carry the responsibility ourselves: we need to contribute to the solution to the problem as far as possible. If everyone simply waits until other people act, then nothing will happen at all in the end.”
This is the gist of one of Michael Otto’s fundamental principles, one to which he already felt committed in his younger years, when he first made contact with the Club of Rome, for example, and later as Group CEO when he began to reorganise his company – consistently and step by step – around greater sustainability. This is something I have witnessed on the WWF Scientific Advisory Committee and later as Chairman of the Steering Committee when the Otto Group introduced the FSC Sustainability Seal for wooden products and paper that had been launched by the WWF. Also, on the Board of Trustees of the Michael Otto Foundation for Environmental Protection I was able to support and contribute to the development of Otto’s environmentally sustainable CMIA cotton certification programme.
For the WWF it was a true stroke of luck that Michael Otto expressed his willingness to take over the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees in the mid-1990s. And for Michael Otto it was also an interesting task – so he keeps telling me – to gain closer insights into the burning environmental issues on our planet through the WWF, as a globally active organisation for protecting nature and the environment. Insights that enable him to think beyond the framework of his own company and have a creative influence on different problem-solving approaches.
This combination of entrepreneurial thinking and an genuine affinity with nature, with sound knowledge, particularly of the domestic and African animal kingdoms, that Michael Otto had to offer were excellent prerequisites for moving the WWF forward with sound judgement in its substance and structure. When he first took up office, an important first step was a thorough analysis and strategic consultancy of the WWF in economic terms, carried out by the Boston Consulting Group. This led to the introduction of new organisational structures and decision-making processes which turned out to be an important prerequisite for generating almost four times the income and number of contributing WWF members in Germany since the end of the 1990s.
An environmental organisation such as the WWF can only be successful in the long term if it is in principle based on optimism towards the future. This means that, in the face of any devastating news about losses to nature on our planet, we don’t lose heart. We tackle the problems courageously with a view to solving them and having all parties involved sitting round the same table. And it is precisely this approach to life that marks out Michel Otto, whom I have always experienced as a positive, forward-looking person, with a sense of reality, the will to find solutions and an often distinctive sense of humour.
When working together, reliability, straightforwardness and decisiveness are important qualities for getting major issues off the ground. Here, in the executive body of the WWF, people who could rely on each other came together with Michael Otto and were able to set important courses of action in motion with sound judgement and flexibility, sometimes with surprising speed. And many a time, if an obstructive financial problem arose, Michel Otto was generously able to solve this himself.
Such an important solution to a problem happened only a few months ago, in a ten-minute phone call that reached me during a lecture I was giving about the human brain. The students understood and had accepted a brief interruption to the lecture, “It’s about an important nature protection project. Dr Otto is on my mobile phone.” In this telephone call, on the basis of a memorandum that had been delivered to him some hours previously, Michael Otto gave me his generous assurance that he would finance the purchase of a restaurant in a national park to bring peace to this area of disturbance in nature and convert it into an information space and a base with facilities for hikers. I subsequently explained to my students that, with their patience, at just the right moment they had contributed to the financial solution to an important problem in a national park – and this was acknowledged with loud, appreciative rapping on the lecture-hall benches.
Dr Otto has been Honorary Chairman of the Board of Trustees since summer 2012 and he continues to have close ties with the WWF as a mentor and supporter. By purchasing 100 WWF Protection of Species Trunks for use in schools and by financing the information space for the ‘Alte Buchenwälder’ World Nature Heritage site, he continues to show his enthusiasm for, and commitment to youth and environmental education issues in the areas of nature and species protection. In so doing, he shows that he does not want to wait and do nothing until − perhaps− the State is ready to take on such tasks, always true to his principle that,
“If everyone simply waits until other people act, then nothing will happen at all in the end.”
The Board of Trustees, the management and the employees of the WWF all wish Dr Michael Otto many happy returns of the day on his birthday on 12th April 2013 and very much look forward to continuing our close ties with him as Honorary Chairman of the WWF.
Prof. Dr. Detlev Drenckhahn