What we mean by ‘responsible’ careers in the private sector and what does the future hold for corporate responsibility (CR)?

These where just two of the topics we discussed in a wide ranging recent panel event on ‘corporate careers with a conscience’ chaired by Nick O’Shea, an economist and social entrepreneur. He was joined by LSE alumni and others working in different areas including ‘inclusive finance’, green and social bond investment, responsible sourcing and supply chain, sustainability, and CR consulting and public affairs in the Business in the Community (BITC) team which is a membership and networking group for organisations looking to increase the scale and scope of CR activities through active lobbying.

So what insights did they share and what might this mean for you moving forward in your careers?

The general consensus was that CR careers are here to stay but what we will see is a change in focus as the aspects of business which might have at one time seemed a bit ‘bolted on’ to an organisation will become more embedded. The panel was generally very positive despite recent political statements throwing doubt on for example, the impact of climate change. Among business and consumers there was no let up in demands for things to be ethically sourced and environmentally managed. Business leaders can clearly see the business case for CR and investing in the long-term in areas like renewables and energy efficiency initiatives. Reputational risk is increasingly important and in many companies CR offers a clear competitive advantage.

Those working in CR consulting and supply chain talked about a shift in the work they’re being commissioned to do over the past six years. This encompasses not only responsible sourcing and environmental impact in areas like biodiversity, water management, and carbon management, but working on the human rights side of things covering hours, salary, abuse, and child trafficking. Business strategy is increasingly having to take this into account and developments include a commitment to training, improved reporting and transparency, and commitments to, for example, the Modern Slavery Act being written into policy.

Overall the panel were optimistic we are seeing more transparency and improved reporting across all areas of business including environmental and compliance. Businesses are increasingly committed to change and leveraging efforts across sectors to make improvements. The B-Corp movement were talked about, with Unilever held up as the model of excellence for having a commitment to embed CR across the company. Other organisations mentioned as having an integrated approach to CR included the Crown Estate and National Grid.

So what did the panel suggest you do if interested in this type of work?

  • Be genuine, feel strongly, find your passion were all words of wisdom shared by the panel. It’s no good to simply say that you want to change the world. You need to think what that means in practice and look for practical ways you can contribute.
  • The question to ask yourself is ‘do you want to work for a good business or a business you can do good in?’
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking public/third sector good and private sector bad. It’s much more complex than this! While working in international development and the charity sector might be one way of demonstrating a commitment to positive social change and justice it’s certainly not the only route. The private sector has the scope to make practical changes and has greater influence on the ground.
  • Social businesses, those that address people, planet and profit offer exciting opportunities. We’re seeing companies disrupting traditional industries (like fintech) and putting consumer interests paramount. This is just one example but we are seeing increasing numbers of businesses starting up to address different CR and social justice issues. While they may not offer the training and secure employment opportunities of larger public or private sector organisations offered very real scope to engage and pursue a career with a conscience.
  • Intra-preneurship (change from within) is generating more momentum so even if you aren’t working in a CR role if it’s something you are positive about there are more and more avenues to effect change from within.
  • Develop an understanding of the business issues you’re interested in, whether that be climate change initiatives or other legislation like the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights. It’s important to research these things yourself and understand the context in which organisations work.
  • Develop an understanding (and critical) approach to the measures that organisations use but understand these are based on assumptions. Understanding reporting requirements will help you, as in all aspects of a career in CR this is an increasingly important aspect of almost every role.
  • Remember there’s no one route in – think about what you find exciting and explore every avenue to these areas of interest through attending conferences and networking events like those run by BITC.
  • Look at various measures and indexes to identify companies with ESG credentials, for example the BITC responsible business awards and business index.
  • Network, talk to people, get some ideas then network some more! You need to be proactive to identify opportunities.

Thanks to Nick O’Shea, Jon Hudson, Isabella Stanbrook, Lisa Wong and Charlotte Williams for appearing on the panel and sharing their insights.