Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Is the corporate responsibility and sustainability profession just another elite? 

By 3p Contributor

By Tom Idle — The recent EU referendum demonstrates the national divides we have in the UK – and plenty of evidence shows that we have one of the lowest social mobility rates in the developed world. We face enormous social and environmental challenges – something that history tells us can be overcome by diversity. What better first topic then for the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability’s (ICRS) first annual debate than the issue of social mobility in the CRS profession?

Despite the work CRS professionals do on a daily basis to promote a more equal and fair world, the recent CRS Salary Survey revealed that 93% of those working in the sector have first degrees or post-graduate qualifications. The question is: Are we just another example of a profession dominated by the elite? And more importantly, are we doing enough to create a level playing field where young people from all backgrounds can aspire to a career in the sustainability profession?

Job satisfaction 

As you might suspect, job satisfaction is very high in this sector. Some four out of five people say that they really love their jobs and nine out of 10 would recommend working in CRS. “With that level of job satisfaction and with the importance of the work that you do, it’s a competitive market,” says Mariano Mamertino, an economist at the global jobs website Indeed.

“What that means is that the people that make it very often have pretty impressive educational qualifications. If you’re recruiting people from the elite of higher education, then you are already recruiting from a pool which doesn’t represent the British population as a whole.”

Jobseekers and workers are increasingly interested in things that go beyond just mere compensation and benefits, with many attracted to purpose driven companies, says Mamertino.

According to the Indeed Job Happiness Index 2016 the most important factor was actually work life balance – not salary. In fact, compensation actually ranks as the least significant. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter, of course. But, “good culture, a clear mission – companies that are good places to work – translates into real satisfaction for their employees,” he adds.

Academic qualifications

Privately educated people still continue to dominate the top jobs in the CRS sector. Such individuals are more likely to receive private tutoring and go on to do postgraduate degrees. “So those postgraduate degrees have become more of a distinguishing mark as universities were a generation before,” says Dr. Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

The cycle then continues as those privileged individuals get senior positions and higher wages, which are reinvested into their children’s future. “The access to the workplace has become the new frontier of social mobility.”

The question is when we’re looking at a CV and academic success, what exactly are we looking for? “We need to think about talent,” says Major. “What is it about talent, is that more than just having an academic qualification? How do you identify that?”

Beth Knight, head of corporate sustainability, diversity and inclusive Leadership for EY, recognises that certain skills are required to fill CRS roles in order to understand complicated concepts and distill them within the workplace. “I do think it’s critical that you have credible, talented, highly skilled people in these jobs because they’re difficult. How those people are credible and highly skilled, and how they get to that is interesting,” she says.

Knight sees herself as a good example of social mobility, growing up in a working class background, and getting into university through an access course with a scholarship. She also has a Master’s degree, but it’s one she obtained while working. “I feel that that gives me the credibility to do a good job because I have the confidence that those qualifications bring me.”

Clearly, Knight is proud of her achievements and believes that academic qualifications are valuable in the CRS space. However, at EY, one of the words they use is “degree caliber,” with EY actually removing the degree qualification requirement to get in its graduate programmes so they can assess aptitude from a broader talent base.

Glass ceilings

“We do have a very good demographic at the base of the pyramid. I think where it becomes really interesting is as you move up the organisation, what you see, and the different glass ceilings that you start to hit,” notes Knight.

According to the data, these experienced shoes are not easy to fill, with many employers reporting that they are struggling with their CRS vacancies, especially those that require management or leadership skills.

That’s when compensation becomes more of an issue. “The gap between top paid people and the bottom paid people in business has got much greater, to the extent that a huge part of the rising poverty in recent years has been from in-work poverty,” says Tom Levitt, founder of Sector4Focus. “And if we’re talking about responsible business, lets think about how responsible business tries to tackle in work poverty.”

It shouldn’t be ignored that those coming from alternative routes actually bring valuable skills that could disrupt the cycle. In some research Knight did with Cambridge University, she found that those with postgraduate qualifications were highly skilled with entrepreneurial skillsets, while people who had practitioner level qualifications “had much more high skill areas in inclusive behaviours and their ethical orientation”.

Social diversity

Since education is such an integral part of the problem, the ICRS debate panel recognised that while there’s some great work in embracing ethnicity and gender, “one of the things we’ve forgotten about is social diversity,” says Major – particularly around working class white males.

Youth unemployment is a huge challenge in Europe, notes Mamertino, with some of the reasons being the divide between the education and business realms. Those countries that are getting it right, like Switzerland, Germany and Austria, enjoy some of the lowest youth unemployment levels in the world. “They have a really strong connection between the business community and the education system at a local level,” he says. A strong apprenticeship system brings real choice for young people. “They face a choice of either going to university or equally a rewarding a career in the vocational career opportunities.”

Major agrees that the improvement of apprenticeships can create a viable avenue alongside degrees. “We’ve found that the returns to high quality apprenticeships that have proper progression have higher earnings returns now than many degrees.”

Looking to the future

CRS shouldn’t belong to the elite, says Levitt; it should belong to everyone. “Every manager should be a CRS manager. They don’t have to have CRS after their name, but its up to the CRS professionals to lead that, to say this knowledge and expertise is not just belonging to the elite,” he says. “We need to go out there and share it.”

He notes that of the world’s top 100 economic entities, 69 are actually corporates. “That’s the highest that figure has ever been, and it shows what responsibility business and corporates have for the future of the planet.”

For change to occur, Major says we need to make commitments, suggesting that 50% of vacancies should be open to talented people who have gone through non-academic routes.

It’s clear that while some measures are being taken, such as EY’s idea of “degree caliber” more can be done to address the elitism of the sector. By recognising a broader definition of talent, with the improvement of apprenticeships and addressing the risk of in-work poverty, perhaps the profession can work towards exemplifying the diversity and equality it promotes. Could the next CRS salary survey deliver us a different picture?


TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Read more stories by 3p Contributor