Originally published on Presidio Graduate School’s Blog.
In some circles, large multinational corporations are the root of all evil. The means of modern capitalist production are the source of inequity, environmental destruction and splintered communities. Within these groups it is the rare professionals who aim to correct the externalities of corporations—not through picket signs or protests but through a focused process of entrepreneurship. Sandra Taylor is one of those practitioners.
Working within large multinational corporations, Sandra started her career in sustainability playing with what she calls the “sustainability dark side.” Her expertise as a communicator of corporate social responsibility put her on the forefront of managing media relations after her company’s industrial fertilizer was used to create the Oklahoma City bomb. Her background in supply chain management placed her in community outreach roles at Kodak, and as an executive of global sustainability for Starbucks. While these organizations are large, complex and often the target of bad press, Sandra’s experience is a lesson to the Presidio Graduate School community that incremental change and the pursuit of good corporate citizenship can result in real environmental, social and economic results and can redeem almost any corporation.
Sam: What started your sustainability career?
Sandra: I started because I worked for the chemical industry, and we started working on something called responsible care, which was an initiative for international chemical companies that wanted to establish their brand and regulations above EPA and government regulations.
Sam: I know you have a really good story about how you fell into the public relations side of your work. In regards to one of the chemical company’s industrial fertilizers being used to create the Oklahoma City bomb, can you speak to that experience?
Sandra: When I worked for Imperial Chemical Industry, I had started my career as an international trade lawyer… At the time I was promoted to vice president of public affairs, which included government relations, internal trade policy as well as communications and media relations. So on my watch one of our business divisions, which was agricultural chemicals, included fertilizers… Most fertilizers are ammonium nitrate which can be diverted to an explosive… So many terrorists have made bombs from ammonium nitrate fertilizers, our product was used to make the Oklahoma City bomb so our company was sued by the family of the victims for negligence; alleging that we should have done something to the product to prevent it from exploding. So I got my trial-by-fire in defending the company, as well as in crisis communication and litigation communication.
Sam: Do you see a connection between that experience and sustainability? A lot of time sustainability can be seen as an afterthought that comes from the event of a crisis… Does sustainability require a crisis?
Sandra: I do think that when I first got involved in CSR a lot of companies felt their only responsibility was to respond to a crisis, Exxon Valdez for example; companies thought their job was to clean up after a crisis. At the time there was not a lot of thought to what we should be doing in advance to prevent these things from happening.
For my company we were not responsible for the bomb or the way the product was changed to become an explosive, but I don’t think we ever talked to communities around where the product was being made, about how it could be used—farmers probably didn’t know it could be diverted to a bomb. So I think we did have a responsibility to be more open in talking about our product.
Now our company did not have a physical presence in Oklahoma, our product was just sold at feed stores and we didn’t take the opportunity to build a better image or reach out to the community. I felt the company should have taken some steps to reach out to the community to make things better, and as a result our brand image suffered.
Sam: Do you think that community building skill is being used today in your current work and what are you doing now?
Sandra: I definitely use(d) that, certainly in part of my job at Kodak where part of my job was to develop community advisory panels to reach out to communities around factories to let them know what products were being made, what emissions were associated with the factory. But also to invite the community in and demystify some of the work Kodak was doing.
These days I consult with a variety of companies across different sectors, and building relationships with community is important in any business. Sometimes it’s to address emissions and sometimes it’s just to be a good corporate citizen and help to alleviate poverty in the community or build a sense of community.
Sam: How do you see that tying in with PGS, how did you make your connection with the school and how do you hope to tie in your expertise?
Sandra: I was an Aspen First Movers fellow, which has a strong connection with PGS, which is where I became aware of the business program. I had done some lecturing and teaching in Washington D.C. in the past and was very interested in connecting with a business school that focused on sustainability. So this semester I’m an expert in residence, so I present lectures in courses and am working with students on research projects, which have to do with wine. So sustainable leadership and the economics of organic wine production.
Sam: How are the research projects looking? What gets you excited about the wine industry and how can you measure sustainability in that space?
Sandra: I used to work as an executive in global sustainability at Starbucks, where I dealt with supply chain management and grower relations… When I started working in the coffee industry I noticed several parallels between coffee and wine—both are necessary luxuries I think for consumers. So I started to explore what was happening in the wine industry in regards to sustainability and it’s still very new in most parts of the world. So I was excited to bring in my expertise from another commodity industry into the wine industry. So I’m hoping to help and support those doing sustainability in the wine industry to establish rigorous standards both for growing grapes, producing wine and its distribution…
Sam: Are there any ethics or ideas that you return to that guide your sustainable lens?
Sandra: I think every company must look at their supply chain. The NGO or activist community will quickly tell us what companies need to do, but honestly companies need to identify their own environmental obstacles and challenges through product development to end-of-life of a product. What are the social implications in their factories? Their workforce? What are the social needs of the community around the company? So I think if every company looked at their supply chain and had a strategy for reducing their environmental footprint we could make a huge difference in the world.
That doesn’t necessarily mean just climate change, at Starbucks we focused on waste diversion for use of cups and coffee production. We had a climate strategy, but our carbon footprint was low compared to our waste footprint, so in that instance we needed to work on waste. We also had a responsibility to improve the quality of life for coffee farmers, to make sure that a more equitable share of funds moved through the supply chain and made it to the growers to help them produce their coffee in ways that are more environmentally sustainable for the land.
I like the triple bottom line, I like the whole notion of balancing economic social and economic sustainability. I happen to believe that companies have a responsibility to alleviate poverty…
Sam: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to share?
Sandra: I think that often young people who are interested in sustainability often have a disdain for large corporations and I think large corporations can really make a difference because of their size and their footprint. I think young graduates should take a look at companies that need the kind of expertise we have in sustainable management. While I was an Aspen Fellow we looked at what we called “intrapreneurship” and changing companies from inside. So I encourage students to take a look at large corporations, I think that any company that wants to do the right thing can be redeemed.