How to be a corporate sustainability officer, from one who knows

How to be a corporate sustainability officer, from one who knows

The best audience for Tim Mohin’s “Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations” may be those who walk in his shoes.

When Timothy J. Mohin was enforcing social and environmental standards with Apple’s suppliers around the world, Apple found that suppliers in certain countries had a higher likelihood of employing bonded laborers, who had paid exorbitant fees to get their jobs, gone into debt to their brokers and were basically working in forced servitude.

Mohin, now director of corporate responsibility at Advanced Micro Devices in Austin, Tex., is a pragmatist. He knows that corporations operate in their own self-interest, and that it was in Apple’s self-interest to identify and fix this problem. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that it was fixed.

Sometimes, when you know your profession inside and out, you can enjoy a step-by-step how-to like “Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.) even more than the aspiring student who is highlighting and making notes.

“This book is a manual on how to steer the corporate supertanker toward doing good for people and our planet,” writes Mohin. And if you know exactly what he means, his clear and practical style might give you new insights into the evolving role of corporate sustainability officer.

You can nod when Mohin gets it right: “A repeated theme throughout this book,” he writes, “is that corporate responsibility is often considered an add-on to the primary functions of the business.

“If your supplier responsibility program is relegated to a niche that is considered ‘odd’ or less important than product quality, engineering, or other business issues, your suppliers will pick up on this and your program will suffer.”

You might pick up a best practice idea or two.

“At Apple, I made it a point to personally conduct at least one audit every year and meet the managers of major supplier factories at least once a quarter,” Mohin writes. “There is no substitute for visiting supplier factories in person to get a sense of the corporate culture and how things really work.

“One of my favorite tactics was to wait until the end of the day of long meetings or auditing and, without prior notice, tell the factory managers that I wanted to stay in the worker dormitory for the night.”

And you can remind yourself – as if you need reminding – how fast things have changed and how fast they continue to change in corporate sustainability and social responsibility.

As Mohin writes, “My own career reflects this change. I started off working on regulations dealing with local environmental impacts. Later, I was enforcing social and environmental standards with Apple’s suppliers in countries around the world.

“Now, at AMD, I am working to end the human rights abuses in the dangerous minefields of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the profits from mining ‘conflict minerals’ are funding some of the worst human rights abuses of our generation.

“In just a couple of decades, the scope of corporate responsibility has grown from local to global, from single impacts to multiple impacts, and from a single company to a whole supply chain.”

The details are that, after getting his master’s in Environmental Management from Duke, Mohin worked for the EPA in Durham, where he helped draft the toxics section of the amendments to the Clean Air Act, signed in 1990.

He worked for Senator Max Baucus drafting environmental legislation, then moved to Intel to become its first governmental affairs manager entirely focused on environmental policy.

“This is where my story – how to be a treehugger in the corporate world – begins.” He spent 12 years at Intel, 2½ years at Apple, consulted for a year, then joined AMD in 2009.

And what does it all mean?

In his preface, Mohin writes, “While being a professional altruist in a for-profit company is a bit like being the designated driver at a cocktail party, it can also be very, very rewarding.

“There are many examples I could pull from my career, but one of the most touching came from my time as Apple’s head of supplier social responsibility. After years of work and millions invested, I could see that conditions had improved for thousands of workers.

“The most memorable moment was when I walked into a classroom we had set up in the factory to allow the workers to take online courses after their shifts on the manufacturing line. Hundreds of the young Chinese workers used the classroom to learn various topics, and most chose to learn English.

“When I entered that classroom, the students/workers mobbed me with sentiments of thanks spoken with their newly acquired language skills. In any language, their genuine gratitude for the chance to learn a skill that could improve their lives came through loud and clear.”



Posted on

July 18, 2013

About the Author

Brooks Clark

Brooks is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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