Key Questions in this Post:
- Why do people seek”sustainability” or “corporate responsibility” jobs?
- Should “sustainability” jobs be actually part of “do good” careers, or rather “do not as much bad”?
- What does it really mean to work in a “sustainable” job vs. a “normal” job? What is the value in this difference?
Today, let me speak especially to the aspiring or graduated MBAs and undergraduate business/economics students among you. Let me be blunt. First, I can indeed see why gray-haired corporate executives, looking back on long, illustrious, successful and profitable careers in what used to be “traditional” companies, find an appeal in preaching for sustainability and corporate social responsibility today. Yes, I can follow the “whole triple bottom line, it’s good for all, it’s good for us, it’s strategic growth engines, we ALSO have an obligation to invest in our communities” types of rationale.
Fine, so maybe they DO feel genuinely guilty about their firms’ past footprint on the environment. Or maybe they have always been environmentalists and community lovers at heart. Or maybe they just want to keep up with their executive peers/Joneses at the local country club. Kidding aside, my point is I get why they do this (good and bad reasons all in all) and why they try so hard to make sure everyone else hears about it, too.
But, I ask, what about young professionals nowadays? Why are many of you so enthusiastic about embracing CSR and sustainability as careers? What is it that you seek to accomplish that is better, more noble, than your peers pursuing “traditional” jobs?
You may think of it as obvious and insulting for me to ask. But allow me to argue that it may not be. At least to me, it is not. Not if your goal is to say you are “doing good” in the same sense as the people who sacrifice and toil away in thousands of government, nonprofit and social enterprises worldwide. So before you put on your best suits, ties or skirts for that interview for a sustainability job, will you indulge me for a few moments to think about why you do this? I promise, it won’t take more than 10 minutes of your time…
- As you may know by now if you read this blog, I am always interested in getting behind the underlying principles of why we do what we do. Nowadays, on the topic of “do-good” careers, clearly sustainability and CSR are major trends particularly for legions of the business school species of our Good Generation. To my first question, why people seek these careers, I came to divide people by two different motivations. Which one applies to you?
- First, motivation by guilt. So you decided to become a business person. Then you realized either through the voices of media, family, friends or Al Gore himself, that many multinational corporations have historically born a massive burden on the environment, society, or both combined, nay, actually contributed to the former’s destruction, including habitats for the universally beloved panda bear. So yes, you would still like to work for some cool company that makes the products you love. But you also want to feel good about it and make sure they don’t pay 13-year old kids in Vietnam to sew those shoes, that they don’t release toxic sewage into the ocean, that they don’t emit too much CO2, and so on. Also, instead of just passively expecting these “good” values from your company, you actively seek out that job in CSR or sustainability to make sure you spend most of your time trying to be the voice of reason instead of just contributing to traditional functions needed to sell your firm’s widgets.
- Second, motivation by doing good. You are the same business person but your motivation is actually to save the world or make it a better place. You believe that working in a corporate function that deals with sustainability (or even a whole dedicated department) makes you an active contributor to doing good (compared to your peers who just sold out and went to evil oil companies). You fully subscribe to “doing good and doing well” all the way up your career ladder and love the idea of having your cake (cool job, money, prestige) and eat it (at a company that is a good citizen and makes the world better).
- Between those two groups of people, I understand the first, but not the second one entirely. To explain, this leads me to my second question, whether “sustainability” and “CSR” jobs should actually be counted as “do good” careers along the same meaning like the good work of social enterprises and most nonprofit organizations dedicate themselves to. For the sake of this article, let us define “do good” as “not hurting the environment” for simplification.
- Then let’s start with this premise. Corporations must consume natural resources to produce and sell their goods. Almost every corporation in some way either (1) depletes the environment and/or (2) irrevocably destroys parts of it in the process. Let’s assume for a moment we can distinguish between “essential” (must have) corporations, those producing goods and services absolutely necessary to our survival, and “leisure” (nice to have) corporations, those producing goods and services for our entertainment and leisure. Assume the first group includes things like food, clothes, buildings/shelter and healthcare. Assume the second group includes things like televisions, all kinds of gadgets, and video games. What if I argued that unless you work for the first group of corporations, you are by definition part of an organization that does not produce an essential good technically, but also part of one that in the process consumes more resources than it can replenish or recycle, thus contributing to our planet’s demise (dramatic, but logical conclusion) – especially when it wants to grow, scale and touch consumers everywhere?
- Seen from this angle, the role of CSR and sustainability is similar to this analogy: assume I have a garden with nice roses. You step through my roses on the first day to sell me a TV. The next day you step through my roses to sell my neighbor a TV, since I already have one. Upon my protest after the third and fourth time, you say you will do it responsibly by wearing light Birkenstocks instead of boots like your competitors stepping through my garden to offer their TVs as well. Now if “doing good” means to preserve our environment, would it not be more consistent for you to just stop stepping on my roses completely instead of only “lightly”? I would take it even further. Would “doing good” not require you to actually help plant some new roses or go and fix broken ones left by others’ boots? The latter work is what I would ascribe to the task of social enterprises creating jobs and NGOs dedicated to rebuilding and protecting the environment. By contrast, how many corporations pay to fix their broken roses or plant new ones?
- So I would personally tend to think of CSR and sustainability as an attempt to do “less bad”. But claiming that you are “doing good” by working for that responsible corporation (or saving the world), especially if the product of the corporation is fundamentally not essential to humanity, seems somewhat inaccurate to me. By this narrower definition of “doing good”, social enterprises and NGOs would qualify in their attempts to provide essential services by reducing suffering, upholding justice, or fighting for human rights. Yet the fifth and sixth corporation selling Twinkies, diamonds and DVD players, does not. If anything, I would argue, aside from the debatable value to humanity of their products themselves, one “pure” socially redeeming function of corporations is the creation of employment with health benefits, salaries and many more rewards for employees in return for their labor.
- Thus, for those of you in the second group, if you would like to defend your claim that you are indeed actively doing good, you may want to point to the fact that you are part of an entity that creates jobs for people. In that light, I do not see the legitimacy of feeling proud to be technically screwing up the environment “less than others” to differentiate yourself from those pursuing jobs at “less responsible” or “traditional” firms. It is my opinion, however, that most people today flocking to sustainability jobs claim that in fact it is the latter reason (doing less bad than others), which makes their calling noble, instead of the former. Pointing to the former, I suppose, would be rather unexciting.
- At this point, let us finally arrive at the third question: what makes a sustainability job more valuable than a traditional job?
- Again, based on the reasoning above, my answer in many cases would be “slightly more peace of mind”. It would not be “doing good” or “making the world a better place.” It would more likely be “making the world not as bad a place as our competitors.” Let me put out my claim bluntly here and welcome your critique. It goes something like this:
- Today we have all the goods in the world that we would ever need for both sustenance and our entertainment. We have mostly enough stuff. Forget for now the stuff that will cure cancer, etc. It’s nice to have, but not must-have. More stuff buys comfort, a little more longevity and entertainment. It does not create progress for humanity in the things that matter most, such as a greater capacity to be kinder, to love deeper, or to create beauty.
- Making more, newer, fancier goods all the time is unnecessary if we truly prioritize preserving the environment over meeting our hunger for leisure and comfort.
- To simplify, the definition of any true “good” corporation would then maybe be one that (1) sells a good that serves the betterment of humanity, or at least (2) creates jobs in the process, (3) creates a total environmental and social impact that is outweighed by the cumulative benefit conferred by the products sold and (4) restores the majority of depleted resources to the environment. In other words, if Acme, Inc. produces medicine, the benefit of all medicine units sold for patients should exceed the cost exacted on environmental resources depleted in their production. Also, Acme, Inc. should have some way of restoring or recycling what they took from the planet (otherwise we all run out of the resource, which is the opposite of sustainable). Clearly, a difficult calculation, but I would not be surprised if many corporations would not pass this test – that is, their production of ever-more stuff does not warrant the production of waste and pollution necessary to produce that stuff, especially when you count the supply chains required by the corporation. Can we really have our cake and eat it?
- Hence, by this admittedly narrow (and probably unmeasurable) definition of the “good/sustainable” corporation, I would argue in principle that anyone employed by such a “good” corporation should enjoy equally noble recognition. It should not be the privilege of those in explicit “sustainability” positions to enjoy this distinction. Therefore, if the good corporation abides by the above definition, the real answer to the third question – whether sustainability jobs are more “good” than normal jobs – is NO, they do not seem to be.
- In summary, the CSR and sustainability jobs of today appear useful for two sorts of people. First, those who do not wish to feel as guilty in pursuing their dream to work for some corporation making things from automotive to shampoo. Second, those who would have otherwise liked to do good through nonprofit, government or social enterprise work but realized the pay, benefits, training/career development opportunities, and other reasons were simply not good enough. They thus decided instead on a corporate job that will pay better, teach them business skills more rigorously… all that while not doing “as much bad” as they would in a traditional firm, whatever that means. A third group of people, whom I have actually not discussed here, is particularly exciting. These are the people who truly believe they can climb to the top of their corporations, fight the battles it takes, and align the forces necessary to make their companies actively “good”. What’s more, they will dedicate themselves to leverage the resources and engines of their businesses to do things that smaller organizations could never dream of. This is the hope I have in sustainability jobs, namely that they will become “corporate social innovation” jobs, a term we do not use frequently yet. Once firms break free from a mentality of being just about compliance and abstaining from doing bad, interesting things can happen. But more on this topic in another post.
- To come out clear in the end, no I am not a communist and no, I do not hate corporations of course. I also do not discount their importance compared to NGOs and social enterprises, despite viewing them at times in an unfavorable light throughout this article. I unequivocally do welcome CSR and absolutely support sustainability and the “shared value” concept to come into the mainstream of corporate attention, strategies and transformation. Meanwhile, however, I also reserve the right to remain skeptical whether such sustainability roles should truly deserve to be called “do good” careers before they have rightfully earned it.