Our History: 40 Years of Impact

WRI was created in 1982 in Washington, D.C., with a founding grant of $15 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Rather than create an activist organization, its visionary founder, Gus Speth, established a science- and evidence-based institution that would carry out rigorous policy research of global environmental and development issues.

From the outset, WRI’s leaders realized that effecting change required research and analysis that was both scientifically sound and practical — work that commanded attention from decision-makers in both the public and private sectors. Over its 40-year history, WRI has remained true to its founding mission of moving human society in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations.

Today, WRI has more than 1,700 staff and offices in Brazil, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. We work with partners in more than 50 countries to expand our work, scale our impact and improve the lives of people around the world.

We’re proud of our 40 years of research-based solutions, and we’re only getting started. Read on for the organization’s full history and plans for the future.

The Early Years (1982–2008)

WRI has always been a science- and evidence-based institution. But it does more than just analyze problems — it works to advance solutions.

“WRI was one of the first organizations — if not the first — to recognize that you have to take man into account if you’re going to have any lasting success in dealing with environmental problems,” said the late Bill Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and WRI Board chair. “You have to harmonize the interests of man and nature in order for either to succeed.”

This emphasis on people has helped WRI work with a broad range of partners to form coalitions for change.

WRI Executive team in 1987
Members of WRI’s executive team in 1987. From left to right: Wallace D. Bowman, Gus Speth, Jessica T. Mathews, Andrew Maguire.

WRI’s initial focus was on the United States. But limiting its efforts to a single country was inconsistent with its vision. To broaden its reach, in 1988, it took over the North American branch of the Institute for International Environment and Development (IIED), a major contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In absorbing IIED’s Washington office, WRI became an aid contractor with a portfolio of environmental and development projects around the world.

Around this time, WRI made overtures to the corporate world to explore ways of harnessing market forces to protect natural resources — one of the first environmental organizations to do so. Overcoming skepticism from some, it forged strong partnerships with major multinational corporations, such as General Electric and Caterpillar, building corporate support for action on climate change. WRI launched its first Greenhouse Gas Protocol standard 2001, which is still considered the gold standard in measurement and disclosure of corporate greenhouse gas emissions.  

Over the years, WRI has earned a reputation for proposing practical solutions based on rigorous analysis. Its evidence-based, non-partisan approach brings all decision-makers to the table, including deep long-term engagement with governments, corporations, city leaders and communities. It has become a leader in the use of new technologies and big data to inform better decision-making. And it puts equity at the heart of all its work.

Recent History (2008–21)

Going Global

WRI leadership recognized that to be a truly global organization, it needed feet on the ground in countries at the frontlines of natural resource constraints. In 2008, it established an office in Beijing — its first permanent presence outside Washington — advancing its strategic plan to expand its global presence. It quickly followed suit with offices in India (2012), Europe and Brazil (2013), Indonesia (2015), Mexico (2016), and Africa (2017).

Today, WRI has more than 1,400 staff and offices in 12 countries (Brazil, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States) and works with partners in more than 50 countries.

Count It, Change It, Scale It

WRI recognized that it could not create meaningful change in the world while acting only as a “think tank” — it also needed to be a “do tank,” using its research to bring about solutions. WRI’s “Count It, Change It, Scale It” approach guides its work:

  • Count It: We start with data, creating user-friendly information systems, protocols and standards. We conduct independent, unbiased research to analyze relationships and design solutions and then widely communicate our findings.
  • Change It: We work with leaders of cities, companies and countries to achieve change, testing our ideas in complex, messy, real-world situations. We set clear objectives and hold ourselves accountable.
  • Scale It: We identify and overcome barriers to change so that proven solutions spread quickly and widely. We work with coalitions of remarkable leaders who transform business sectors, societies and economies, nationally and globally.

This model helps WRI turn its research into real-world change. WRI’s projects produce dozens of outcomes annually — from securing stronger climate action plans from key countries to preventing traffic fatalities in developing cities to convincing major corporations to cut their food loss and waste. Learn more about WRI’s top outcomes.

Investing in Innovation and Data Platforms

Thanks to technological innovation, the world now has more data than ever before. But the availability of data is just the start. To make better decisions, leaders need data that are credible, actionable and freely available.

WRI produces data sets, data platforms and data-based tools, which it shares with anyone who wants to use them free of charge. WRI’s Data Lab, launched in 2020, works throughout the institute to help researchers harness the full power of the data revolution and use modern technology to solve today’s most pressing issues. WRI’s 10 unique data platforms enable users to monitor forests with satellites, track the drivers of climate change, understand indigenous communities’ land rights, plan for water scarcity, examine the cross-section of global environmental issues and more.

World map of tree cover loss from forest fires over time (2001-2021)
 A world map shows tree cover loss from forest fires, 2001-2021. Made with Global Forest Watch.

Thinking Bigger through Delivery Platforms

WRI leaders recognized that to achieve more ambitious goals, we can’t do it alone. WRI works with partners to mobilize coalitions and major, multistakeholder global initiatives. We call these projects “delivery platforms”.

For example, the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), a partnership launched in 2015, works with companies to set emissions-reduction targets aligned with what scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst effects of climate change. As of 2021, SBTi was working with more than 2,200 companies representing over a third of the global economy’s market capitalization.

The Food and Land Use Coalition, a delivery platform created in 2017, brings together more than 60 organizations and individuals committed to shift food and land use systems in ways that protect the environment, improve human health, reduce food insecurity and foster inclusive development.

Committing to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Climate change does not affect everyone equally. It exacerbates poverty and inequity and cuts marginalized people out of the processes that determine whether their communities become more sustainable.

Ensuring equity for people must be at the heart of any effort to decarbonize the economy. In July 2021, WRI launched the Center for Equitable Development, which expands its governance work and emphasizes the importance of equity. Equity Center projects include the Climate Resilience Practice, the Environmental Democracy Index, the Land and Resources Rights Initiative, the Gender Equity program and more. The Equity Center also aims to add an equity lens to projects throughout the institute,  ensuring that a clean energy transition leaves no one behind and putting communities at the center of climate adaptation initiatives.

WRI is also committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within its own walls. Integrating DEI into all of it actions is not only morally right, it increases the impact of our work and fosters a more innovative, collaborative culture.

EDGE certification seal

As a starting point, WRI has collected data on the nationality, race, ethnicity, age and gender composition of its global workforce. As of 2021, 57% of its workforce, 48% of its global management team, and 69% of its global executive team were women. Its Washington office is certified by EDGE, the global leader in certification for gender equality.

WRI country directors in 2016
WRI expanded its global network starting in 2008, opening offices in China, India, Brazil and more. Here, country directors and senior leadership gather during a retreat in 2016. From left to right: Manish Bapna, Shailesh Sreedharan, Nitin Pandit, Li Lailai, Kitty van der Heijden, Tjokorda Nirarta "Koni" Samadhi, Rachel Biderman, Adriana Lobo, Andrew Steer.

Moving into the Future (2022–30)

The next decade is critical for WRI’s issues. Research shows global emissions must drop by half by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and reach net-zero by mid-century.

The world is far off track. Of the 40 indicators WRI assessed in a 2021 report, none are on pace to hit the necessary emissions target by 2030.  

The world will need far-reaching transformations across power generation, buildings, industry, transport, land use, coastal management and agriculture to build a prosperous future. WRI stands ready to help bring about this massive, systemic change — and the economic and social benefits that come with it.

We’re currently developing our next five-year strategy (2023-2028). This bold plan will position the institute to drive change at the scale and pace needed for people and planet to thrive.

But we can’t do it alone — we need your support. Join us in fighting for a future that is fair, sustainable and prosperous for all.

Donate to Turn Research into Action

Your generosity enables WRI to turn research into action and create a more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable future for people and nature. Learn more about the many ways to support this work and consider making a gift today.

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