An afternoon with Francesca Zoppi

A sustainable development specialist for the United Nations

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“I’ll be back from New York in two days - is it a good time for you?”

It’s always a good time to meet such an incredible advocate for sustainability - but I couldn’t sound that excited on the phone, so I professionally mumbled “Yeah, it could work” and ended the call there.

This was not going to be our first encounter, Francesca Zoppi, sustainable development specialist, and I had previously met at a social event a few months earlier. I got introduced to her through mutual friends at one of those dinners where truly you know only one person, not-so secretly didn’t want to go, but had to go because, what do you know? Something may happen.
Nothing did, or something indeed has, I met Francesca.

Between courses I immediately sensed her multifaceted personality and elegant bearing. She's soft-spoken and well-mannered, which I was pleasantly surprised with, even before learning that for the past years, she has supported the engagement of the United Nations’ mandate in matters concerning the implementation, follow up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

And, when that came to play, I knew that I had to have her for my next piece. Personally I always had a strong feeling that the issue on sustainability was a little bit foggy: the information is there, but so much miscommunication dances around it, and so little guidance is given on what really should be done. Hence, I interpreted it as a sign that the time had come to educate myself more on the topic, and figure out how to better the planet and me in the process.

So, I make an appointment on a Friday at the Soho House in Rome, which I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few months, and love the intimacy the place exudes. I come in early, as one should, and find her stylishly positioned in front of the fireplace, in the main room, while sipping ginger tea. I personally would’ve gone for wine, but I like her subtle choices already. After a warm hug and some chit chat about the weather, I dive in with the first question.

Okay Francesca, not to sound too naïve (which I bluntly am), what is sustainability?

She hints at a smile. “That’s such a broad question”. Let’s start with the basics. When we talk about sustainability we often mistakenly refer only to the environmental dimension, when instead the pillars on which sustainability rests are three: economic, social and environmental. This is the first fundamental concept to be acquired.

Take economic sustainability, farmers in developing countries are the ones who produce the most at the economic level, adding value to one of the target points of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (no hunger). Unfortunately, farmers are not given the right payments, they don't have the right method nor the tools to create a rural finance tool. Economic sustainability, as per definition, requires that a business or country uses its resources efficiently and responsibly so that it can operate in a sustainable manner to consistently produce an operational profit. “What we do in these cases is to go on the field and work with these people to give them the tools”.

The dimensions are not one-sided, they interface and intertwine. The goal of sustainability is to work for people and the planet, leaving no one behind.

Social sustainability is the ability of society, or any social system, to persistently achieve a good social well being, that includes any social conflict that may come to mind. She tells me that she’s currently working on a project concerning hunger and gender issues. “You work in teams. I manage various teams, I am very team member, everyone has the skills to bring a better result. I don't believe in hierarchy, I believe in team power. I am selective, but I give everyone a voice. I believe that to be a leader you have to lead by example”.

I personally hadn't considered the gender struggle nor the humanitarian issue as part of the sustainable path of the planet, she instead points out to me how much they are part of the same grand vision. Indeed, it is exactly how she started working on this. “I have always been a very interested person in the gender topic, growing up in Italy for the first years I felt I had become very feminist, I felt that women did not have the same rights as men. Then I met someone who introduced me to this eco-sustainable world, everything I had done for gender and human rights I brought back to the sustainable world which then is kind of the same thing if you think about it. I was working with NGOs, volunteering for homeless people. At that time I was working for Amnesty International UK, they were making a difference, but we were always waiting for the green light from the United Nations, so I went to the source, which is where I work now.”

You can tell from the details of her stories that she is extremely passionate and proud of the work she does, and, in no small part, incredibly busy!
In addition to serving as an advisor to governments, she works alongside the private sector with whom she organizes meetings, events, conferences, and, lately, she is also passionately involved in sustainable fashion. However, sustainable fashion is still very expensive, only some social classes can access it, but she assures me that is a problem that is being solved. Before fibers cost so much, the designer could not afford to buy those materials. This is decreasing as there is more sensitivity, there is more demand, and automatically the cost is falling sharply.

I perceive her to be strongly confident in the future: is sustainability therefore teachable?

“Yes, not without a conflict, but yes”. It depends on the nation, some are more welcoming, some more rejecting, depending on the sense of civility. Nordic countries for example, she goes on saying, already have a strong conception of sustainability, have the right economic resources, are invested in human rights, they are great. Mediterranean countries are different, in Italy Francesca says she finds people are always a bit sceptical, especially when it comes to government, political aspects, only 20 percent are well informed, the others want to avoid. “That's why I spend so much time doing talks in schools and private events. I believe that knowledge is key for change. We’re looking for a change in behaviour. It is important that you educate yourself and your friends."

And after one last sip of ginger tea, I could end the day here, but I still have one more question, a bit controversial, that I have tiptoed around until now. It comes out, almost without approval. Is becoming a vegan part of sustainable thinking? (laughs) “I’m not sure I should be talking about this”. But I feel like we’re friends now, so I’ll ask her again. She starts by saying that she was vegetarian for 10 years and she will always choose when given the chance to eat sustainable food, with no addition of fertilizers. “I don’t think being vegan means being necessarily sustainable, climate change is suffering more because of cigarettes, buses, and bad transportation. Yes, eating meat has an impact, but it's not the same percentage as so many other things that we could do without. However, whatever works, you should make your own choice towards sustainability, whatever step suits you better is welcomed.

With the smile of a child who has just received her sugar lump from the dentist, I am more than satisfied with the response and greet this magical evening and Francesca with a new pleasant awareness: through my humanitarian projects I was already working for a more sustainable planet, I just didn't know it yet.

By Miriam Vanessa Gagino
Digital - category
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