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October 1, 2014 / Heather K Mak

Finding work in Corporate Social Responsibility – my take

Every so often, a fresh graduate or student or friend or acquaintance will ask me for advice in finding work in CSR.  Below, I have put together what I have learned in my own journey in being a student, finding work in CSR, switching from one industry to another, working in various sustainability roles, and moving overseas to find work.

How did you become interested in CSR?

People often ask me how I came to work in the field.  It was something that I was interested in since I was in my undergraduate degree, but at the time it was either you work for a big corporation or barely squeak by at an NGO.   I went into an area I was interested in, marketing.   It wasn’t until several years later, when I was working closely with Walmart as a vendor, and they made a presentation on their new sustainability goals.  This  sent chills down my spine, that such a large company was looking to change the world.  I left my job a few months later to pursue a Masters degree, and after I graduated, got a job in sustainability consulting.

What skills do you need to work in CSR?

In no particular order, here are some key skills that I think you need to work in CSR.  

  • Curiosity/lover of learning – are you always keeping up to date on the newest global developments and trends?  This will help immensely!
  • Communication skills – can you write well and speak well?  Can you get your point across succinctly?   Do you embrace new forms of media?  Are you good at telling stories persuasively?
  • Interpersonal skills/empathy – do you have the ability to work with people in all sorts of backgrounds?  Do you listen well?  Working across stakeholder groups is important.
  • Selling/influencing skills – are you able to influence change?  Are you credible?
  • Analytical/research skills – can you analyze large reams of data and qualitative information and come up with clear, compelling conclusions?
  • Resourcefulness – are you able to get things done on a shoestring?  Are you able to orientate yourself easily in new situations?  Are you a master of Google?
  • Project management skills – can you make sure projects are delivered on time and on budget?  Do you know your Gantt charts from your critical paths?
  • Quick learner – can you get up to speed on disparate topics quickly?
  • An interest and knowledge of CSR topics – do you know the basics in CSR?

Many people will say that they are passionate about CSR or sustainability – but at the end of the day, passion will not get you the job.  How have you channelled your passion into practical experience?  It’s all about how you differentiate yourself from other people who are just as passionate.

I’ve just started looking for work in CSR.  Where do I even begin?

Because CSR is a less developed field than say, marketing or finance, turning up the hustle in your job hunt is vitally important.  In Canada, there are no specific headhunters/recruiters, although admittedly is pretty great!  In the UK, there are a few of them (i.e. Acre Resources, Wilbury Stratton) but mostly they will only contact you if they have something of relevance, which may not happen often particularly if you are new to the field.  As a result, you need to get out there and meet people.  Check with your own friends and former coworkers if they know anyone working in the field, and take the opportunity to pick their brain.  Most people will help you out if they can, but make sure you have something compelling to offer!  I also suggest joining mailing lists/following RSS feeds of different sustainability companies (most of them have a newsletter, by the way) and head out to their events.  Use social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn and write articles to build profile. Attend a Green Drinks in your part of the world to get started – typically if you can’t find prospective employers here (sometimes you can, but most of the time it is other students), you can definitely find some people here who can give you some good advice or at least a sympathetic ear.

I’m an undergraduate student looking for entry level roles in CSR.  Where could I get experience?

Again – there are no job fairs for CSR.  You need to talk to as many people as possible and narrow down your interests so that you can build a compelling offer.  Something else I have noticed is that many of my colleagues who work in sustainability, tend to have Masters degrees.  In some ways, this has become a pre-requisite.  However, that’s not to say that you can’t immediately get a job in sustainability – you may also try your hand at being an entrepreneur.  It’s happened before!

I’m working in ____ industry and I’m not confident that I could switch into CSR.  How did you switch careers from one industry to another?

For me, switching careers was a 2 year process and it’s not something that can be done overnight – it requires a constant process of identification of skill deficits, continuously improving, and chatting with people that you admire and seeing what they did to get where they did through a bit of backcasting.  I had always been interested in CSR since my undergraduate degree, and prodded companies that I worked with on their CSR, but hadn’t really considered it a possible career path until I began working with Wal-Mart as a vendor and realizing that they were really committed to the cause of sustainability.  This was back in 2006, and I began working in CSR in 2008.

I think the key is to look for adjacencies between jobs, particularly in skill sets that are widely transferable (such as the ones mentioned above in the “What skills do you need to work in CSR?” part of this post.

How did you make the best of your school experience to land a job in CSR?

Other than the obvious taking of courses that are relevant to the field, there are a number of other things that I highly recommend that you do.

  • Get to know the faculty and support staff. Very often, academics in the CSR field (and in general) have some good connections to industry, government, media, etc., and are often consulted upon to give their opinions.  They can be a very helpful resource to connecting you with the right people.  Similarly, any support staff, as tends to be the case in many cases, can be a useful conduit to getting some face time with the right people.  
  • Do an independent study. By far this was the most important part of my degree and where I learned the most.  If you pick a topic that is not just a vanity project and is something that is relevant to the industry of your choice, and you can also interview actual practitioners, this opens the door to a job.  And it’s also a great token to have with you when job hunting, and if you can publish your work, all the better.
  • If your career centre is good, make use of it.  The career centre during my Masters degree was PHENOMENAL in helping me redo my resume from a consumer packaged goods audience to a sustainability audience.  I immediately had more responses.  Better yet, if you can get someone from the field to give you some feedback, this may provide some more timely suggestions.
  • Join Net Impact. When you’re a student most try to scrimp and save every penny.  When it comes to memberships to organizations, you will have to look no further than Net Impact for CSR.  It is phenomenal in terms of resources, learning events and conferences.  Their annual conference is a fantastically organized event with lots of great people to meet and I cannot emphasize this enough! 
  • Attend conferences and other events. Usually schools will set up CSR conferences and guest speakers.  Go, and get to know the people attending, including the guest speakers.
  • Tap into alumni networks and mentorship programs. You’d be surprised to find out who went to your school, and how much this helps you find a job.

I don’t know how to speak to complete strangers for an informational interview.  What do you suggest I do?  Where do I get their contact information?

LinkedIn is a great tool for looking up people at different companies – and you can usually figure out their email address patterns, e.g.,, etc.  In your email, state who you are, why you are interested in speaking to that person (do your research in advance), and suggest that you take them out for coffee or lunch.  Be clear about the time you want from them too.  If possible, try to give that person a few weeks of leeway in your meeting time as it is often difficult to meet at the drop of a hat.  Thank them for their time and leave your contact details.  Also feel free to send them your CV as an attachment so they have some further context on who you are.  You can also try a phone call as well – but catching them by surprise may not be desirable.  As well – be careful not to be too aggressive, as that can lead to a complete non-response.  After two tries, move on!  There are certainly other folks out there that you can speak to.

I want to move to (insert city here) to find a job in sustainability.  What should I do?

I would strongly recommend saving up some money, and spending a bit of time in the city and meeting as many folks as you can during your reconnaissance trip. You might get lucky!  Move there afterwards, after sorting out visa issues (if applicable) and saving up a bit of a reserve fund.  Strong hubs for sustainability are usually the big cities, but in particular:

  • New York
  • Washington DC
  • San Francisco
  • Toronto
  • Vancouver (less so, these days…)
  • London
  • Amsterdam
  • Berlin
  • Copenhagen
  • Paris
  • Sao Paulo
  • Nairobi
  • Mumbai
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Beijing
  • Shanghai
  • Hong Kong
  • Guangzhou

Finally, in terms of other helpful links in finding jobs in sustainability, check out:

  • Net Impact has excellent resources for students.
  • Toby Webb’s Smarter Business Blog – his post from May 2014, is very helpful, and generally the rest of his posts are pretty interesting too.
  • BSR has some job postings at their website, as does CBSR.
  • Acre often has compelling job postings for UK/Europe.


June 16, 2013 / Heather K Mak

Bathing in behaviour change….

Last week, I was honoured to be invited to be part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan roundtable in Toronto, with my focus being on sustainable sourcing.  Unilever, as many of my peers in the sustainability space know, have catapulted into the spotlight over the past few years for their ambitious Sustainable Living Plan, to essentially decouple growth – double the size of the business AND drive sustainability throughout the company, its products and consumers.  The one challenge that the company has had quite a bit of trouble,  is driving consumer behaviour change to be more sustainable, given that most of the environmental impacts of their products occur during the use phase.  The company published the Five Levers of Change two years ago, which I found to be highly insightful.  When companies share their resources like that, I honestly think that more benefits accrue to them (but that’s fodder for another blog).

In any case, one of the case studies covered in the roundtable, was that it is very hard to get people to take shorter showers.  For one thing, taking a shower represents the only time of the day that you have peace and quiet, and for me at least, the time when I have my best ideas.  It is also the essential time for me to wake myself up.  And of course, in some cases, it can be a bit of an indulgence.  And I have tried in the past to take shorter showers, using  kitchen timers – but they represented a huge annoyance more than anything.

So, several days post-roundtable, short of getting into unprofessional territory and turning into Pigpen:

This is taking it a bit too far.

I’ve opted instead to take shorter showers by turning off the water when I am lathering/using conditioner.  Surprisingly – I didn’t notice a huge difference.  It’s not that cold when you turn off the tap (although I am certain that some shower manufacturers have invented a warm “mist” of water by now for those more faint of heart), and the other nice thing is that the bathroom is not like a sauna when you exit.  No mirrors to wipe steam off of.  Less energy required to heat the water (let’s see when we get our utility bills next month!) and to exhaust from the bathroom.  And lastly, apparently taking hot showers really dries your skin out, so hopefully over time that means I will be using less moisturizer (sorry, Unilever.)  I’m only two days in, but hopefully I can keep remembering to do this to officially be a convert.

(Side note:   on the hot cold hot cold temperature changes – there are so many cultures – Japanese, Scandinavian, Turkish, Russian – that have a hot-cold bathing culture, that I wonder if this is actually good for us.)  I’ll report back in a month’s time…

April 11, 2012 / Heather K Mak

Addressing Big Hairy Audacious Gaps

Originally posted on the SustainAbility blog April 10, 2012.

In March, a report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance was released, mentioning that Wal-Mart was nowhere near meeting the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that it had set out in late 2005 – that is, to be 100% powered by renewable energy, create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain people and the environment. Porras and Collins, the authors of the original article on BHAGs in Harvard Business Review in 1996, said that a BHAG must be “clear and compelling, serve as a unifying focal point of effort, and act as a clear catalyst for team spirit.” And Wal-Mart’s BHAGs did just that – stories abounded about transforming whole supply chains and their products, assessing each and every supplier’s sustainability performance, engaging employees through Personal Sustainability Plans, and building new green stores. On a personal note, I can remember the initial spine-tingling feeling it gave me when I first heard these commitments – it even inspired me to jump from being a consumer goods market researcher to a sustainability practitioner to tackle these issues.

Several peer BHAGs soon appeared after Wal-Mart’s. Marks and Spencer set 100 ambitious targets (and then some) as part of Plan A in 2007, to be met by 2012, including becoming carbon neutral in the UK and the Republic of Ireland by 2012 and sourcing 100% renewable energy for its stores. That same year, Tesco committed to be carbon neutral by 2050, also promising to carbon label all of its products. Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 to help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being, halve the environmental impact of their products, and source 100% of their agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020. It has become common to set goals that may not be reached.

All of these companies, including Wal-Mart, have reported back on their progress and have been transparent in doing so. If a goal wasn’t reached, they’ve stated why it wasn’t reached, mostly learning through trial and error. Marks and Spencer has faced challenges with government policies in renewable energy, and has had to rely on offsets more than it hoped in reaching its carbon neutrality target. Tesco recently stated that they were getting rid of the carbon labelling scheme, due to its lack of critical mass and the long lead time required to calculate the footprint of each product. Unilever has had the benefit of launching their Sustainable Living Plan very recently, and has not yet had to report back on its performance against its commitments. These companies have brought us along for the journey, and we’ve been able to relate to and identify with their challenges, even if their goals have not been met. We have grown to trust them, and that they are proceeding with the right motives.

However, an uncomfortable truth lingers – we know that the environmental, economic and social challenges we face will not be solved by good intentions alone. If we are going to make any serious progress towards a more sustainable economy we need companies not only to set BHAGs, but to more often than not meet them. We need to go beyond merely applauding companies for setting BHAGs and actually hold them to account.

That is not to say we should discourage companies from setting BHAGs if there is a risk they may not be met. On the contrary, we desperately need business to aim higher; 3-5 year targets which are at best incremental will not be enough to deliver sustainable, lasting change.

For now I look forward to encountering that spine-tingling feeling again, when I learn of a global company successfully bridging the Big Hairy Audacious Gap between setting a truly ambitious goal and actually meeting it.

December 14, 2011 / Heather K Mak

Ecolabels: it’s time for a change

(Originally published in the Crane and Matten blog)

Over 30 years ago, the Blue Angel label came out in Germany. It was significant – a label for consumers to recognize what was the more environmentally sound choice, backed by a standard and certification. Years later, many others followed – including many well-known ones such as Fairtrade, Marine Stewardship Council, Energy Star, Organic – and as of several days ago on the Ecolabel Index, the tally was at 424 labels. But what we needed in the past is not what we need any more. It’s time for a change.

In a recent research piece from SustainAbility called Signed, Sealed…Delivered? that I co-authored with my colleague Patrin Watanatada – we looked at the value and challenges that businesses find in using certification and labelling as tools to improve economic, environmental and social outcomes across global value chains.

What we have found is this – certification, labelling and the standards-setting organizations behind them have been pioneers in building a more sustainable economy. For businesses, they provide a credible, consensus-set reference point for collective action, access to expertise and networks, and can spur demand for certified or labelled goods. This is particularly the case in the B2B space, where labels and sustainable attributes are built into institutional purchasing agreements, such as within large companies or municipalities.

However, there are also a number of challenges. The traits that are the strengths of consensus-based standards – governance and inclusiveness — also pose challenges. For one, some businesses are seeking to advance sustainability as quickly as possible – but sometimes the agreement required in a consensus based model can slow things down. In addition, what is best for all stakeholders is not always perfect for sustainability – for example with many of the forestry standards it is a compromise between best available science and what the industry can handle. Also – the issues that are covered by specific standards may not be entirely appropriate for the business, so there are many cases where companies such as Innocent Drinks have developed their own standards for sustainable sourcing. As labels become more known in specific product categories, they also become a mere condition of entry, which has been the case with Energy Star in electronics. This does not suit most marketing departments who seek to differentiate, first and foremost.

Another challenge to labelling is that it has limits – in particular, limits to scale. Labels are mostly recognized and understood by a niche group of consumers – a typical consumer will not buy an ecolabelled product unless it has a clear “what’s in it for me?” for them. For example, organic products have done well because many believe it to offer them a significant health benefit. This is also why we see an increasing number of B2B standards and certifications that have no consumer facing element, including the Better Cotton Initiative and UTZ Certified for coffee and cocoa, which allows companies to focus solely on making the commodity more sustainable.

What then needs to happen? We think that the model of standards + certifications + on-pack ecolabels needs to evolve, where they are separated and each are used and recognized as part of a larger sustainability toolkit. Standards would provide an increasing, pre-competitive baseline, and brands could compete around this, such as what apparel manufacturers are planning with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s index. In concert, partnerships and collaboration with civil society would help to transform supply chains and consumer norms and behaviour, for example with Procter & Gamble’s Turn to 30 cold water washing campaign. Certification could take the form of civil society and government evolving to be more effective and efficient in developing ways to hold business accountable. And lastly, brands – which intentionally started off as trustmarks themselves – would be the main focal point with labels becoming a complementary “back of pack” instrument, such as the case with Method using Cradle to Cradle certification as a design tool to reinforce the brand’s design focus, and using the label for the 1% of its customers who are interested in it.

It’s a tall order to be sure, and a lot needs to happen before this vision can be realized. But in a quickly changing space as sustainability – it’s time that ecolabels had their change too.

September 13, 2011 / Heather K Mak

Open Data: Put Your Information to Work

(Originally published in the SustainAbility blog)

In a previous post, I shared some insights on open data’s relevance to sustainability reporting and stakeholder engagement. While the move to open data has many benefits, including enabling stronger stakeholder connections, companies have been slow to voluntarily go public with their datasets. At the same time, companies that are already moving down this path have recognized the challenge of ensuring the data they release is truly useful to stakeholders.

For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations recently recommended that virtually all data from relevant clinical trials should be disclosed once a new medicine is cleared for marketing. That could push many companies in the industry to embrace a wider degree of transparency sooner than expected, but new tools will also be needed to help users navigate and understand the vast amount of data that is released.

In this light, we offer the following steps to help companies think through how to make data both open and useful:

  1. Do an information inventory. Examine company policies and programmes for privacy, security, and intellectual property, check how the company uses and shares information, determine opportunities and threats in releasing specific data sets. Having a good understanding of the ecosystem that the open data thrives in will allow a company to understand potential feedback.
  2. Be strategic with the data you are releasing. Be clear about what you hope to achieve with your data – for example, do you want your stakeholders to look for patterns or help you determine better ways of measuring impact? Nike, for example, had a hackathon with $6 million worth of its life cycle data, in hopes of unlocking more value and creating greater impact beyond usage at Nike. This coincides well with Nike’s desire for innovation and to drive system-level change.
  3. Manage data, change, and people. Make data usable and accessible for stakeholders, raise awareness of its availability, ensure your internal and external stakeholders have the right skills to use it, and provide incentives for stakeholders to use the information. For example, the MTA, the largest transit authority in the US, found that releasing schedule information in a useful format, removing licensing hurdles, and providing incentives for developers has yielded apps that facilitate improvements in rider experience.

While the concept of open data is still in its infancy in the corporate world, there is evidence that it is increasingly seen as an effective way of driving greater transparency, building trust and yielding key insights for both the providers and users. Those companies taking early steps to ensure that this data is available, accessible and useful, will be the ones who are best placed to build trust and stronger connections with stakeholders.


July 28, 2011 / Heather K Mak

Open Data, Open Sesame

(Originally published on the SustainAbility blog)

Organisations as diverse as the US Government, the New York Mass Transit Authority and the World Bank have started publishing their previously-closed data for the world – and more particularly, their stakeholders – to see and use. This move to open data has many benefits, from fostering stakeholder participation in solving complex problems, to enabling third parties to dream up completely new services (such as mobile applications that tell you the fastest way to get around your city).

Companies, however, have been slower to embrace the move to open data, and this was the subject of a recent webinar for our Engaging Stakeholders network members.

Max Ogden (2011 Fellow at Code for America) and Laura Adams (Digital Advocacy Lead for Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike) joined our members to talk about Nike’s own progress in opening data, to explore how a similarly active approach can benefit other companies, and to discuss open data’s relevance to sustainability reporting and stakeholder engagement.

I thought others might benefit from a few of the session’s insights:

  • Open data does not mean revealing every confidential piece of information in your arsenal.  It might simply mean publishing previously disclosed data in ways that afford easier analysis. For example, key data from previous financial and sustainability reports – revenues, GHG emissions, electricity usage, community funds, etc. – could be aggregated into and shared as an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Open data enables stronger stakeholder connections. It can involve them in finding solutions, and can facilitate the discovery-making process.
  • Many companies don’t realise that the information they have may be of value to third parties other than competitors. For example, a company’s information regarding a particular factory might help a non-profit seeking to research and improve worker conditions across that region of operation.
  • Not everyone will utilize your data. But whether it ends up being used or not, opening it up builds trust among stakeholders.
  • Be strategic with the data you are releasing and be clear with what you hope to achieve by doing so. There are risks associated with putting any information into the public domain, but clarity of purpose reduces them.

In a follow-up post I’ll be looking at some specific steps that you can take to determine how open data can derive value for your company.

July 4, 2011 / Heather K Mak

What’s the big secret?

(originally published on the SustainAbility blog)

In 2009, author Daniel Goleman wrote a book called Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. In it, he argued that we were facing an age of radical transparency – the underlying concept being that decision making will soon be public, and has to be transparent from the beginning of the process.

Yet, we are in an era where there are many companies, private or otherwise, that pride themselves on being secretive. Private, family-run companies like Ferrero, ALDI, and Forever 21, and publicly traded companies like Apple, thrive on secrecy. Yet there other companies that, by virtue of their private ownership, could be more secretive but choose not to be – for example, SC Johnson and IKEA. Can secretive companies still survive in the shift to radical transparency?

Let’s take a look at the examples mentioned above.

Apple is a publicly traded company, known for its beautiful, functional devices, and not a day goes by without newspaper headlines speculating on details of the next Apple gadget or photos of line-ups snaking around city blocks for the latest iWidget. Profits have never been better. Yet, with success comes higher expectations and greater scrutiny. Apple came under fire from Greenpeace several years ago for lagging behind its competitors in reducing the use of toxic chemicals in its products, and it drew criticism last year for a number of suicides at one of its key suppliers, Foxconn, but neither instance has made much of a dent in Apple’s near angelic reputation. Apple still managed to be first on the list of most valuable/trusted brands in the world and 9th on Landor & Associates’ 2011 Green Brands List. So what’s going on? For one thing, Apple’s legendary design and dedication to product experience do keep consumers enamoured of the company, which surely contributes to trust. Also, pre-emptive moves at the product level – like the company quietly moving to secure EPEAT gold certification for some of its laptops – help reduce suspicion before issues begin to escalate.

Ferrero and ALDI, on the other hand, are both privately owned companies that have managed to keep expanding worldwide, without the help of any public relations departments. Ferrero SpA, a confectionery company, has topped lists of the most trusted companies in the world, yet is also known as being one of the most secretive. ALDI is owned by the low-key Albrecht family, and are known for grocery stores with low cost, high quality products and minimal assortments. What is common between the two companies beyond secrecy? Along with Apple, each has approached their products and customer experience with a laser-sharp focus on quality and consistency for many decades, which has helped them to engender trust.

Then, there are companies like Forever 21, a family-owned “fast fashion” company. The company has been growing exponentially, taking up real estate from former department stores and rapidly expanding its product lines. Stores are constantly bustling with shoppers. However, the company has been accused of, among other things, giving preference to suppliers who adhere to the Christian faith, using sweatshop labour, creating clothing that “sexualizes” children, preying on harmless bloggers with aggressive lawsuits, taking intellectual property from other designers, and encroaching on local community initiatives. Not surprisingly, in the absence of more information on social responsibility and community initiatives, many assume the worst. Herein lies the danger of secrecy: what we do hear about these companies, even if it is not true, quickly becomes real in the public’s mind.

Still, there are companies that are privately held and have committed to significant transparency, even if the absence of any requirements to do so. SC Johnson, for instance, claims that “sustainability is just the right thing to do” and have been publishing sustainability reports for 18 years. The company has fully embraced radical transparency with its recent disclosure of all the ingredients in its products at its website and Greenlist rating system.

IKEA offers another example of a privately held company that takes an interesting approach to transparency. On the sustainability front, IKEA has been forthcoming – it has published a comprehensive CSR report for years, collaborated with competitors and peers as part of the Global Social Compliance Programme, and pre-empted consumer concerns about its products by placing environmental labels at shelf-level. After a recent exposé on Swedish television, concerns were raised over the company’s governance and accusations of tax evasion and bribes, in response to which founder Ingvar Kamprad pledged, you guessed it, transparency.

So, what are companies to do in this age of radical transparency? We know that secrecy is often essential to maintaining competitive advantage. However, we also know that the more you don’t tell, the more people want to know and/or will fill in the blanks on your behalf. Ultimately, it comes down to building trust. Ensuring values are embedded throughout the organization, providing consistently high quality products and/or services, and pre-empting any public/consumer concerns before they become inflamed are all useful ways to do that. Lastly, just being transparent because your stakeholders want you to be is a radical idea for a secretive company – it may not always be right, but it’s an idea whose time has come.

The philosopher Sissela Bok summarizes the issue succinctly with this quote: “While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive.” While deception is not usually the motive of most companies, sometimes they just need to let us in on a few of their secrets.



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