We caught up with Sustainability Campaigner and Corporate Social Responsibility expert, Nina about her global experience in community development and implementing SDGs in the not-for-profit sector
What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?
I am British-Indian and both my parents are from and were born in Punjab. I have a BA (Hons) in Economics from Manchester Metropolitan University and an MA in International Relations Theory from Warwick University. Professionally speaking this is more difficult to explain! I have a cross-section of experience but, I suppose you could say I am an experienced policy and campaigns generalist in the not-for-profit sector, working my way up to manager roles. The subject areas of which I have experience include community development, CSR and sustainable development issues including the United Nations SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).
What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?
When I was studying my MA there was one module called International Business and it explored the role of business as a global citizen. At the time the premise of CSR (corporate social responsibility) focused on the roles of big businesses operating in foreign countries so the likes of Shell, BP, Nike. Their supply chains and the impact they had on local communities was only really articulated by the likes of Transparency International and Greenpeace – hardline campaigns which acted to raise public awareness of issues very rarely addressed by big business or in the media.
This led to me writing my dissertation on the role of the media and CSR and whether or not the media is a hindrance or support for good. After I completed my MA I looked for intern roles in London for organisations ‘that were doing that sort of thing!’ My first sustainability/ CSR role was as an intern for AccountAbility.
Can you tell me about your career in CSR/ Environmental consultancy and policy and how you got into?
It started from my role as an intern at AccountAbility (3 months long). Once that role finished I had to find a paid role to stay in London and managed to get myself a policy officer role for a consumer watchdog called Postwatch (part civil service but no longer exists). This was a stop-gap. It enabled me to stay in London and gave me much needed work experience, but the issue itself wasn’t of massive interest to me.
Whilst there I went on a one month course about international development issues from the perspective of a developing country; 20-25 graduates and non-graduates met in Mysore, India for a 4 week course led by fantastic development experts from India. I came back fired-up wanting to change the world. My line manager at the time told me she didn’t want to see me at Postwatch when she came back from maternity leave. Within 3 months of being back, I got myself a role as a researcher at New Economics Foundation and the rest is history really… I moved onto other roles for a variety of reasons (redundancies, leaving the UK, coming back to the UK etc.)
What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?
On a personal level, building up a cross-section of experience that has enabled me to move into different types of organisations at home and abroad. I used to think this was a disadvantage – not being specialised in one particular area but recently found it isn’t! On a professional level delivering and running the leadership programme in Mysore, India (I went back there in 2012) for the Global Institute for Tomorrow’s executive education programme. Taking 25 middle managers and executives from across Asia to India and organising a 2 week programme of lectures and field trips. To be able to reignite the networks and friendships I developed all the way back in 2005 was very rewarding as well as useful to other roles – a key learning.
Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/ unfamiliar career path? Has it been challenging or isolating over the years not having your peers fully understand your job?
I wouldn’t say backlash at all, just more indifference and a look of concern mixed with confusion. As I write this it does make me laugh. The lack of apparent interest in my work did annoy me when I was younger, you do feel a bit left out.
My parents had such low expectations that completing my MA was more than enough for them and living in London without needing their help was also quite satisfying. If anything it was the fact I lived away from home which probably concerned more them than anything else. I suppose I was also lucky in that we were very much a nuclear family – unusually the majority of both my parent’s families all stayed in India, so there was far less pressure surrounding myself and my brother.
Yes, I would also agree that not being able to explain what I do, or present a really clear job title was and is sometimes still annoying. Once I moved into campaigning roles that was all a bit clearer!
How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?
Hmmm… Not massively. I don’t like to waste food and use my own shopping bags.
Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?
I think it’s definitely a lack of understanding and dare I say a lack of priority for them (when I say them I am thinking of the older generation to some degree). No matter what, South Asians will fly home to see their families and visit for weddings etc. I would counter, that for specific communities in Asia there is more awareness. My family are traditionally farmers so they see the direct impact of climate change. Climate refugees in Bangladesh are on the rise each year. For those in developed countries their attitudes are somewhat removed and the issue is not so relevant.
Blockers – the mediums which they communicate and live within maybe don’t talk enough about climate issues. Zee TV and all those other channels just don’t emphasise the role individuals can play and how they impact. Businesses, and suppliers advertising on such channels should also perhaps make more on environmental credentials – consumers see these brands as an extension of their lifestyles.
For the younger generation, I’m not so sure the stigma is there. I actually think they often seem slightly envious that someone has chosen their own career path, rather than following the path set out for them/ be approved of by their families.
Another point – I think the way many South Asians consume food and understand its value is hugely impressive and positive. I think this should be celebrated – fresh, seasonal, cheap food is the staple for many families (lack of meat for many communities) and something other communities can only aspire towards. This is one way they can understand how they are already helping. Daily household chores are also quite carbon conscious without people even realising. The families I grew up with used their own shopping bags and recycled ones well before the trend was to do so!
Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?
Firstly, people need to know what being carbon-conscious means. It always resonates more when you can say it saves you money etc. People need to be encouraged to do what they can manage, taking small steps and feel satisfied and accomplished in whatever they can do. In time, they will then learn what else they can do. I don’t think it’s costly in terms of money. It is costly in terms of research, understanding and then implementing it in your own lives. I think being sustainable is accessible to everyone – within their own parameters of how they can live.
You touched on representation and generally only finding South Asians (majority women) working in D&I, but rarely ever in the environmental/ sustainability sector. Why do you think this is? Why is it important for there to be more representation in this sector?
I think it’s about some of the things I have mentioned above. A lack of peer networks going into similar careers but also I think a lot of it is down to understanding the types and breadth of careers you could have. It’s much easier to envision a career path as a doctor, optician, accountant etc.
It is really important to have representation in the sector to develop practices and research that can be applied across social and ethnic boundaries to affect change at a faster pace.
You’ve worked in policy and community regeneration, across corporations and even in Hong Kong – what has been the most rewarding for you?
That’s a tricky one! The community regeneration work was perhaps most rewarding because I engaged with beneficiaries more directly, whereas a lot of corporate work is directed to the goals of the company, no matter how ethical those are – it is hard to measure the ‘good’ you have done.
However, working with corporates is rewarding when, as I have, have those ‘penny drop’ moments when a senior executive sees a business issue through the lens of CSR and social justice issues. What’s more rewarding is seeing companies who have those moments make actual change.
Having worked in such diverse organisations, can you confirm the industry is just as economically viable and stable as those of your peers?
Absolutely, if anything I would say it’s probably the safer long term industry than many others given COVID and the increasingly alarming impacts of climate change.
The insecurity of the industry lies in the roles that are in-house corporate ones. These roles are solely dependent on the success of the business however, business may well start to prioritise these roles more given the demand from consumers and employees to demonstrate ethical, environmental values. However, the industry operates in thousands of not-for-profit orgs as well as in local and national government agencies.
What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?
I would say go for it if that’s your interest, passion or looking to be the next environmental entrepreneur. No business in the future can operate without understating diversity, environment and well-being. This is where CSR I believe is headed.
Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?
One of the executive education programmes I was part of for a company I worked for in Hong Kong took place in Balikpapan, Indonesia. This is one of the last resource frontiers in Asia with virgin forests being chopped down at a pace for their timber and agricultural land. It was an experience of a lifetime. It was a programme for 25 executives and middle managers from one company – a family owned Singaporean shipping company.
The CEO was relatively enlightened for a man of his background and age. He wanted a select number of employees per year to get a better sense of globalisation and open their eyes beyond their conventional business education. The trip was to the family-run new arm of the business – a palm oil plantation in what was once a virgin Indonesian jungle.
The role of some of Asia’s biggest paper and oil manufacturers are on a whole other level. On the one-hand it made me think CSR is perhaps a futile exercise, on the other it made me realise how amazing it is when smaller companies can demonstrate the provenance of their products, at every point in the supply chain versus those who require a global supply chain where transparency will always be compromised.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think I have said enough! Although I have sometimes felt despair at doing something that can feel like you are hitting your head against a brick wall, whilst also having to contend with the fact that you mates and your family don’t even know what you do! It is an industry which is finally having its day of reckoning. If it wasn’t for CSR we wouldn’t have seen Sainsbury’s taking the plunge (although that is a ridiculous way to describe it) to have a Christmas advert featuring an all black acting cast; we wouldn’t have a modern slavery act, a constant push to close the gender pay gap and a recognition of workplace well-being.
CSR has come a long way from the days of greenwashing; although it is still out there, social media and activists in particular are constantly keeping companies on their toes in their responsibilities towards consumers, employees and shareholders and this is perhaps the best we can hope for!
Connect with Nina on LinkedIn