Garr Punnett had been working in television production when he realized he wanted something more. Inspired by the environmentally conscious fashion brands he had recently discovered, he decided to obtain a degree in sustainability.
"A sustainability degree has provided me a different lens through which to view the world," said Punnett, who graduated with a Master of Sustainability Solutions. "I believe there is a lack of social and environmental empathy when constructing business models and my degree allow me to act with a better degree of certainty what I believe our future economy should look like."
From studying economics to producing television and finally obtaining a Master of Sustainability Solutions (MSUS) in 2018, Punnett has had a unique path. He is current chief of staff for the startup Rheaply. In the following Q&A, learn more about Punnett, the importance of seeing the world through a more empathetic lens and his role at Rheaply.
Q: What was your 'aha' moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability?
A: My 'aha' moment came in 2016 when I was living in Los Angeles, producing television for the Oprah Winfrey network. After a little bit, something about it was not connecting with me anymore. With the advent of Netflix and other digital streaming services, the industry was, and still is, getting pushed to the bottom a little bit which means less experimentation on impactful content and more focus on cheaper production opportunities with a higher ROI. One day, when I was walking through the hallway where we had these cliché phrases on the wall like “be your best self” and “be true,” it hit me that I wasn’t living that.
Around that time same time, I was starting to get more and more engaged with fashion in Los Angeles and I found various companies that were focused on more environmentally and socially conscious brands such as Apolis, Everlane and Patagonia. After that, something clicked and I was hooked. I took the Graduate Record Examination a couple of weeks later, and within a couple months I found myself in Arizona as a grad student.
Q: Why did you choose a sustainability degree?
A: I previously studied economics and knew not only would the Master of Sustainability Solutions be an opportunity for me to understand the other side of the equation, it would also empower me to be more empathetic in constructing economic models that can support a triple bottom line future.
Q: Are there any particular classes or nuggets of information that have really stuck with you or inspired you?
A: Before my first semester of grad school, I had not studied any subjects in the environmental or engineering fields. The life cycle assessment class with Mikhail Chester was eye-opening and was the exact introduction I needed to start thinking about environmental, social and economic systems holistically.
Q: Can you tell us about your current position at Rheaply?
A: Rheaply is a fast-growing software startup building the digital infrastructure to support the circular movement of both higher-value corporate assets and material flows. I’m currently the Chief of Staff and the position is kind of all encompassing.
I lead a more traditional business development role but also serve as a “CEO Lite” to support our founder Dr. Garry Cooper in the growth of personnel, product R&D and establishing high-value partnerships.
Q: How has your sustainability degree advanced your career?
A: A sustainability degree has provided me a different lens through which to view the world. I believe there is a lack of social and environmental empathy when constructing business models and my degree allow me to act with a better degree of certainty what I believe our future economy should look like.
Q: How did you balance your classes with your work/personal life?
A: To be honest, I actually completely failed. That’s one thing I could have probably done better. I should have been more social in my cohort. I spent more time focused on my work and study and that’s a double-edged sword, but I should have focused a little more on cultivating friendships and memories with those who are in this wisdom.
Remember that we are growing an industry. The people you are working with now will likely be the ones rising to positions across sustainability. Having built-in trust with your cohort will be invaluable.
Q: What does sustainability mean to you?
A: Working in this industry has meant an opportunity to build in collaboration and cooperation in a way that hasn't been previously constructed in many other business and business models. Being more environmentally, socially and economically conscious comes with complications that can only be surpassed with communication and prioritization. It is not easy, but you have to allow others to be heard even as you voice your opinion.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: I attend many conferences and meetings where there are sustainability stakeholders looking for answers and I get to experience, in real time, the investment I made in Arizona State University. My degree from a leading organization driving corporate conversations comes with a great amount of respect.
There have been times where people have asked me about the program because they’ve heard so much about it and wanted to learn how to either tap into the program to utilize the talented students or the professional knowledge base that ASU is providing for the sustainability industry. I am proud to be able to represent our common vision and be a part of what ASU has built.