Make a Living While Making a Difference

Wendy Brawer was an English teacher in Japan vacationing in Bali when she noticed how peaceful, rural hideaways were turning into tourist hotels. When she returned to the U.S., she was determined to shift environmental attitudes. She eventually hit upon the idea of helping communities create maps of their ecological and cultural resources. In 1995, she launched a nonprofit called Modern World Designconnecting these efforts and building an internet community. Maps, she says, are “a universal language and encourage discovery.”

Ms. Brawer is one of a growing number of professionals who are making a living while they make a difference. They’re designing careers and enterprises that achieve financial, social and environmental goals, practicing what’s called “multiple-bottom-line thinking.”

Richard Paradis, an engineer with the U.S. Navy, is another example. He and his colleagues one day were chatting about the directives on energy and materials efficiency in the Navy that nobody followed. “Why don’t we?” he blurted out. From there, a program was born that transformed his job and the way the U.S. military conducts its business. The “green buildings” program he helped launch has become a model for the other military services.

There’s evidence that suggests that the multiple-bottom-line approach benefits business. Most recently, a 1999 study by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit leadership education institution, found a positive correlation between doing good and doing well.

  • Anheuser-Busch Cos. cut solid waste by developing a can that’s 33% lighter and in the process saves $200 million annually.
  • DuPont developed a family of herbicides that dramatically reduced herbicide application per acre with no drop in crop yields, and became the second-largest seller of crop-protection chemicals from its former No. 8 ranking.
  • Volvo began to differentiate its trucks on such factors as fuel efficiency and lower emissions. It increased its marketshare in one truck segment by 35% over three years.

These and other multiple-bottom-line initiatives also are leading to related opportunities in high-profile fields as portfolio management, investment research and venture capital. Moreover, they’re giving rise to new professions including ecological economics, environmental management and climate mitigation.

Consider Trexler and Associates, the consulting firm based in Portland, Ore., that helps companies offset carbon emissions by financing reforestation or other environmental restoration projects. With a staff of ten, it’s the largest employer in its field.

“That says a lot about the field,” says Mark Trexler, CEO. “But the business world is just beginning to take the issue seriously. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen the first crop of master’s and Ph.D. graduates doing research on climate protection. Innovation has to increase from now on.”

These new fields and businesses are coming into the main stream. Helping them along are their documentation and promotion by such organizations as the Businesses for Social Responsibility, the Social Venture Network and its B-school spinoff, Net Profit, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies and the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility in Job Decisions which is offered on more than 30 U.S. campuses.

M.B.A. programs also are beginning to catch on. Courses on the environmental and social dimensions of business are finding their way into universities including the University of Michigan, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Case Western Reserve University.

Multi-Discipline Careers

Careers in these new fields often require mastery of both technical and generalist skills. For example, green building professionals follow the traditional path for careers in the construction industry, but need special expertise in juggling multiple priorities.

“You do the same things, but more creatively, because you have to balance the interests of [a greater number of] different parties,” says Kristin Ralf-Douglas, managing director of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit building-industry organization in San Francisco. For managers, running a socially or environmentally oriented business can mean more troubleshooting, negotiation and team-building demands.

Consider the issues involved in running ForesTrade, a Vermont importer of spices and teas from Indonesian and Central American cooperatives that gives farmers technical guidance to reduce their impact on nearby rainforests. ForesTrade partner Sylvia Blanchet was once a social worker. “I give thanks every day for the communication and systems-thinking skills I gained in my human-service career,” she says.

Getting There

In these emerging fields, opportunities abound for professionals with fresh thinking. Moreover, backgrounds once considered checkered often are seen as strengths. There’s also more acceptance of sector-hopping among business, nonprofits and government, as Lisa Leff’s path shows.

Ms. Leff started her career in 1991 as a project manager at the Council on Economic Priorities, a public-research organization based in New York and London that analyzes companies’ social and environmental records. Ms. Leff admits walking in feeling like “Ms. Hotshot MBA, ready to challenge the CEO in the first month.” But she found her ambition and energy level were out of synch with the culture. She quickly concluded that the world of business held the greatest opportunities to have an impact and be true to herself.

She left to join Salomon Smith Barney, a Wall Street financial-services firm, where she helped to grow its Socially Aware Investment Fund to more than $1 billion. She recently joined Trillium Asset Management, a social investment firm, to become the manager of its Northwestern regional office in Boise, Idaho.

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