By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last Monday, the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future held a discussion panel entitled Human Capital for a Sustainable Economy. WNSF Executive Director Anne Goodman said that a focus on sustainable careers can improve the economy and create jobs. She said, “WNSF envisions a future for sustainable jobs.” She explained that these kinds of careers can create financial, environmental, and social progress.

Moderated by Michelle Kahane, Professor of Professional Practice at Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy, the panel featured Melinda Wolfe, Head of Human Resources at Bloomberg, Susan Heaney, Global Director of Corporate Responsibility, Avon, Natalie Thompson, Vice President, Global Leadership and Diversity, Goldman Sachs.

“Bloomberg has some very dramatic goals to reduce our carbon footprint by 50% in a couple of years,” said Wolf. She continued, “Our commitment is a defining hallmark for the company.”

Thompson said, “At Goldman Sachs, we’ve had an environmental policy in place since 2005. It is fully integrated at every aspect of the business.” Thompson also cited Goldman’s new LEED certified facilities.

Heaney explained that at Avon, CSR “functions very much like HR. It intersects with every single department in the company, and sets policy and procedural standards” across the organization. “When Goldman Sachs started tracking social investing, [we realized] this must really count!” she joked. “It was really a turning point.”

Creating Staff Buy-In

Heaney emphasized the importance of taking a long-term view with corporate responsibility. She said, “It’s not a quarter by quarter analysis.” Companies have to be in it for the “long haul” and see these initiatives as an investment.

The challenge, she said, was not in creating CSR policies, but in gaining a groundswell of support for them. She said, “You can make someone do something. But you have to make them want to do something.”

Wolf agreed. She said, “I think it’s really important that you are attracting the right people.” She said the company’s values have to resonate with its staff. For example, she said, Bloomberg recently removed wastebaskets from its employees’ desks. “It takes a certain kind of employee to commit to collect their trash and then throw it away themselves,” making sure to also sort out recyclables and compostables. She continued, “If you’re not going to buy into it, you’re not going to like it at Bloomberg.”

Thompson discussed the need for employees to see top-down leadership on sustainability directives, as well. “You yourself become part of the solution rather than just a talking head.” Heaney added, “If the C-Suite isn’t behind this, it doesn’t matter what you do.”

Attracting the Green Workforce

Dr. Kahane asked the panel if sustainability is one of the factors they hire around. Wolfe responded that she believes it works in the other direction. “We’re looking for the best talent. Sustainability is not one of the core characteristics,” but she said, individuals who care about green issues were more likely to seek out Bloomberg. “It works best from the other side. When you go out there and you see our employee value proposition, by nature we’re going to attract certain types of people.”

Thompson agreed, “We’re evolving in sustainability. I’m not sure if there if there is a direct connection” between new hires and their green characteristics.

Heaney took the perspective of hiring individuals specifically to fill CSR or sustainability-focused roles. She said, “It’s about finding a person who can actually do something and not just talk about it.” She explained that working in a sustainability-focused role can seem like a moving target. “We’re looking for someone who understands what sustainability is, but who also knows that nobody really knows what sustainability is.” She continued, “It’s like learning to drive in the Indy 500. You live in constant gray. There is no black and white.”

Thompson brought up the importance of the next generation of the workforce – the millennials. “It depends on the cohort. On the analyst level, there is a different sensibility on the environment and sustainability.” The sustainability factor, she said, is important “to create a pipeline that will have throughput to take you to the next phase of leadership.”

Wolfe added, “you’re recruiting people you hope can lead the company to the next phase.”