How sustainability vets align their work-life identities
Ellen Weinreb
Mon, 08/10/2020 – 01:00

As our professional colleagues in the Sustainability Veterans group expressed their sense of overwhelm and concern around the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we also reflected on how it relates to our lives, and vice versa.

Sustainability Veterans is a group of professionals who have had leadership roles in corporate sustainability. We are now exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to help the next generation of sustainability leaders achieve success.

To that end, we asked our vets to offer a succinct response to this question:

The sustainability profession includes an identity that extends outside the workplace as much as inside the workplace. How does that play out in your personal life, in ways good and bad, and how has that affected you? 

Their answers covered stories of leadership, perspective and passion. Here’s what they had to say:

Understanding what matters most: Organizations ask employees to leave their personal passions at the door and pick them up on the way home. I was very fortunate to take my love of the environment and lead sustainability. However, I quickly learned that everyone was starting from a different place. Coffee and conversations about what mattered most personally and professionally helped me understand where sustainability could be an enabler and offer an invitation to their own sustainability learning journey.

— Mark Buckley is founder of One Boat Collaborative and former vice president of sustainability at Staples.

Sustainability is everyone’s job: Many saw me as the corporate “queen of green,” resulting in funny, and occasionally frustrating, encounters. Funny: I’d endure good-natured teasing from coworkers (“How many trees are you killing, Jackie?”), and others would hide their single-use water bottles or apologize for other eco-indiscretions. Frustrating: Some people thought sustainability was someone else’s job. I had to consistently educate others in the company that sustainability is everyone’s job (and show up early to run large print jobs!).

— Jacqueline Drumheller evolved her career in corporate environmental compliance to a role launching and spearheading Alaska Airlines’ formal sustainability program.

A welcome surprise: Becoming a spokesperson for a company was a surprise part of the role of chief responsibility officer, but a welcome surprise. It introduced me to so many passionate, knowledgeable people. I learned so much from them and am eternally grateful for the opportunity.

— Trisa Thompson is a lawyer and former Dell Technologies’ chief responsibility officer.

Walking the talk: I’m glad to have insights that should inform my behavior, but I don’t always succeed. Then I castigate myself and worry my peers are judging me. Even harder is walking the line between providing useful information and being sanctimonious when trying to educate others. I try to remember to be gentle with myself and with others!

— Kathrin Winkler is former chief sustainability officer for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor at large for GreenBiz.

Power of individual actions: As a sustainability professional, I have observed how individual actions can lead to significant outcomes. In the workplace, I oversaw the activities of many employees who brought their passion, knowledge and energy to help build impactful social and environmental programs. I am committed in my personal life to leveraging my own individual power and encouraging those around me to make a positive difference in the world.

— Cecily Joseph is the former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec. She serves as chair of the Net Impact board of directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School.

Work on behalf of others: Sustainability professionals should expect to live public lives. As we work across competing positions and underlying social, political and economic interests, our honesty, reliability and personal behaviors become transparent and essential to the work. Our relationships are as important — or perhaps even more important — than our technical skills and knowledge. Our work is on behalf of others rather than ourselves, forging trusting relationships within and outside of our organizations.

— Bart Alexander is former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors. He consults on leading sustainable change through Alexander & Associates and climate change action through Plan C Advisors.

A lifetime commitment: My environmental identity was woken up in the late 1980s. I first took it into my personal life and then the workplace, which led to a complete career change. The passion moved beyond career to become a vocation, then a lifetime commitment. Along the way I got labeled the Queen of Green and Green Goddess (a Nike reference). But as Bill McDonough would say, “Negligence starts tomorrow,” so I learned to embrace it.

— Sarah Severn is principal of Severn Consulting. She spent over two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike, leading strategy, stakeholder engagement and championing systems thinking and collaborative change.

Finding a balance: In my career, sustainability means looking at decisions to be made from different vantage points; how do my actions affect others, the environment and the budget. Over time, I have taken this approach with projects at home as well. Once the right balance is determined and the decision made, it is important to help people (family, friends, co-workers) understand the choice. This triple-bottom-line approach to decision making has proven to work for me.

— Paul Murray, president of Integrated Sustainable Strategies, is retired vice president of sustainability at Shaw Industries. He was previously director of sustainability at Herman Miller.

Communicating to non-experts: Despite spending my entire working time focused on sustainability issues and being passionate about making sustainable decisions on how I lived my personal life, I found it challenging to understand what was communicated (or not) about the sustainability value of the products I was purchasing. I used that frustration as I worked with our business units to make sure that our communications on things like our biobased polymers and fibers could be understood by people who weren’t sustainability experts.

— Dawn Rittenhouse was director of sustainable development for the DuPont Company from 1998 until 2019.

Permeates everything: When I go through my own checklist of what I want in my job, I have caught myself forgetting to list sustainability. It so permeates all of me, that is a given. It is the lens through which I see the world.

— Ellen Weinreb is a sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder Sustainability Veterans

Contributors

Kathrin Winkler

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