Engaging more young Kiwi leaders to take on the environment
May 25, 2018

James Gibson, the Sir Peter Blake Trust’s new CEO, has a passion for environmental leadership – and a personal incentive to conserve New Zealand’s environment, he tells Suzanne McFadden.

It is James Gibson’s principal goal to prepare more young Kiwi leaders to tackle the environmental challenges facing their country.

The new chief executive of the Sir Peter Blake Trust has a strong professional background in sustainability – having previously been the head of sustainability for Air New Zealand – and has a passion for environmental leadership, especially in future generations.

To influence more promising teenagers to take up the cause, Gibson wants to widen the net of the annual Youth EnviroLeaders’ Forum (YELF).

This year, YELF took 56 students from Years 11 to 13 into the week-long programme which addressed topical environmental issues – ocean acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, climate trends and liveable cities. It helped the students to develop strategies to address those issues back in their schools and communities.

But with more than 350 creditable applicants for the programme, Gibson wants to be able to provide the opportunity to more young leaders.

“Making YELF bigger is one thing I’d like to do. We have a quality programme which everyone holds in high regard, where demand massively exceeds supply. We could run it three or four times over,” he says.

“I’d like to see the forum make even more of an impact. I want to see as many high-quality young people as possible being capable of taking on the scale of environmental challenges we face.”

He’s also looking forward to bringing more awareness of environmental issues to schools nationwide, through a new virtual reality project which puts a sharp focus on the health of New Zealand’s oceans.

The Trust has partnered with NZ Geographic and The Pew Charitable Trusts – a global NGO which works to protect the environment and support scientific research – to create a series of 360 virtual reality marine experiences from the Hauraki Gulf to Three Kings Islands.

“We’ve captured footage of pristine marine environments and severely impacted marine environments, to deliver an immersive experience of what the good and the bad look like in our waters,” Gibson says. “Next year, we’ll take that into schools.”

When Gibson applied for the job of CEO of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, it ticked all of his boxes.

After working at Sport New Zealand, Gibson wanted to return to an environmental role. And he was also eager to take on a leadership position.

“The fact that the job combined those two elements, and the Trust was a highly-regarded organisation, really appealed to me,” he says.

Gibson, a keen sportsman in his younger years, has a bachelor of management studies, majoring in marketing and tourism, from the University of Waikato.

He was initially head of sponsorship and community at Air New Zealand, where he forged relationships with bodies like the Department of Conservation and Antarctica New Zealand – two of the Sir Peter Blake Trust’s critical partners.

During his time leading  sustainability at the airline, the company won several major sustainability awards including ‘Eco-Airline of the Year’ in 2016.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to learn as I did with Air New Zealand, which is one of the genuinely world-class organisations we have in the country. I got the chance to learn what ‘good’ really looks like, and I got to do that within the context of environmental best practice as well,” he says.

“We were trying to establish something pretty substantial, and connect it to the core of the organisation. And we were trying to be ‘really, really good’ not ‘just okay’. That aspiration made it a lot of fun.

“We were one of the first to be prepared to talk openly about sustainability, really celebrate it and take it to the public. A lot of organisations have a fear of putting their heads above the parapet. And Air New Zealand is vulnerable to that, as a major carbon emitter, but it was prepared to acknowledge they could do better.”

Gibson also brings strengths from his most recent role, as general manager of partnerships and communication at Sport NZ, the government agency responsible for sport and recreation.

“Because most of the Trust’s major partners are government agencies, I have a familiarity of working in that environment. Those partnerships are critical to us. I can probably work in that space more effectively than if I’d just come out of Air New Zealand,” he says.

Gibson sees his role at the Trust as more “evolution than revolution”.

“It’s the next phase, taking advantage of what is a really strong platform and trying to make it all that it can be,” he says.

“The Trust is in great health – its relationships are really strong and the quality of work is high. And so it’s not about transforming what is done, it’s more about how we grow those programmes to have the greatest impact.”

He values the input of the Blake family, and was able to spend time with Pippa, Lady Blake, in Auckland during the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in March. “We had some really valuable conversations about her thoughts and vision for the Trust,” says Gibson, who once a month has an hour-long chat with Pippa in England.

“She really cares about the Trust; she enables the legacy. The family’s relationship with the Trust is still really strong.”

Although Gibson never met Sir Peter Blake, he was an avid follower of his celebrated feats. “I loved sport, and followed the Whitbread races – I can still remember seeing Steinlager 2 racing Fisher & Paykel into Auckland. In the 1995 America’s Cup, I was living in the UK playing cricket, and my mum sent me a pair of red socks that I wore around,” he recalls. “I was also very interested in what Peter was doing for the world’s oceans on board Seamaster.”

Gibson’s own sporting background included water polo and cricket, which he played to provincial level. He still plays midweek social cricket, and is a director on the board of the Northern Districts Cricket Association.

A father of two young girls, he is also keen on the great outdoors, particularly tramping and ocean swimming – which no doubt gives him more motivation to protect New Zealand’s forests and seas.