Sometimes getting a company to do the right thing by the earth isn’t a matter of threats or fines. It’s a question of dialects.
"Being able to speak the language is important," says Shauna Sadowski, N05. "Companies have their own language. The field of sustainability is quite different … it’s about a triple bottom line, or how you consider the impact on people and communities, the environment, as well as the financial profit."
Whether the discussion turns to leverage ratios or organic farming techniques, Sadowski can converse fluently. A farmer’s daughter with a business school degree, she has helped Fortune 500 companies translate environmental wish lists into persuasive business cases. She currently tackles sustainability issues for Clif Bar & Co., a California-based maker of energy bars and nutrition drinks that prides itself on its earth-friendly practices.
Sadowski’s area of expertise is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The proposition: that a company should put some conscious thought into its effects on people and the planet. Doing so can certainly look good to consumers, and help sell more widgets in the short term. But the companies that consider the future, Sadowski says, have done their scenario-based risk analysis. In corporate-speak, it’s called "continued supply assurance."
"We cannot continue at the current pace of conventional agriculture," she says. "The amount of pesticides, the amount of soil erosion, just the natural degradation that is taking place with the intensification in agriculture is not sustainable. And it’s contributing to the problems of climate change and water scarcity. Companies have to do things regardless of the consumer. I realize some people will always ask, ‘If consumers won’t buy it, why should we do it?’ If you don’t start looking long-term at this, you won’t have a supply any more, and then you will have nothing to sell."
Clif Bar already buys more than 20 million pounds of organic ingredients (nearly 70 percent of its total ingredients) each year. It hired Sadowski to focus on other attributes that contribute to a sustainable food system, like whether its suppliers use renewable energy and are water-efficient, as well as the social side of food production and processing, like community engagement and workers’ health and well-being. A supplier code of conduct is also in the works.
"I believe that only by working within our supply chain—connecting the various players together along the way, from farm to final product—will we truly contribute to a more sustainable food system," she says.
Raised on a 500-acre farm in Saskatchewan that her father’s father had tilled, Sadowski saw both the pros and cons of working the land. "It was not the idyllic farm life that sometimes is romanticized," she said, noting the financial hardships of running a medium-sized farm. "If you didn’t get big, you got pushed out."
Wanting a more lucrative career, she studied business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and spent the next four years as a consultant, advising Fortune 500 companies on best practices in strategic planning. Mergers and acquisitions and portfolio analysis were a far cry from the wheat fields of Canada, but "I liked the analytical thought that went behind it," she says. "The issue may have been, say, outsourcing, but the way that you think about it, the analysis that goes on behind it, can really be taken across any problem. This is when I started going back to the socio-economic side of things. How can I bring in these business skills in a way that can benefit society?"
The problem she wanted to tackle was the food industry. So she enrolled at the Friedman School and began to look at ways for the public and private sectors to work together toward sustainable development. Along with Kristen Rainey, F07, she helped put together a panel on sustainability throughout the supply chain, bringing together farmers, companies and NGOs to talk about how they work to promote social and environmental responsibility in their organizations.
After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and took a job with the nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility, where she helped food and agricultural companies incorporate environmental and social practices.