The Business of Change

Rosie Towe, a UK-based CRS consultant, discusses how she's helping companies to integrate sustainable and socially responsible practices into the core of what they do.

by Olwen Smith, October 11, 2017
Rosie Towe CRS

Rosie Towe is a consultant with Carnstone Partners LLP, a management consultancy specialising in corporate responsibility and sustainability. Carnstone was one of the first specialist sustainability advisories, and has been around in one form or another since 2000. Carnstone’s 25 consultants have a range of academic backgrounds: from physicists, marine biologists and engineers to anthropologists and human rights specialists. The team are London-based, with an office in Shanghai and a presence in Brazil.

How would you describe what you do?

It’s very diverse. One day I’ll be investigating the impact that TV shows and newspapers have on society; the next day I’m setting the strategy for an NGO. But the common thread is advising and helping organisations to behave in ways that are better for people and planet around the world. Our clients are often big companies but we also work for charities and associations.

How would you describe Corporate Responsibilty and Sustainability (CRS)?

It’s all about the private sector as a lever for positive change and progress. That encompasses a huge amount: from the products companies sell, to how they look after their workers. Business touches on so many (if not all) aspects of life that they can be a really powerful tool for good… and for bad, too.

What changes have you observed in the way CRS is practiced?

CRS is evolving. A decade ago, the landscape was made up of specialist teams doing great work but with little connection to the commercial strategy. Now, sustainability is increasingly integrated, with a far greater influence on strategy and lots of employees in different departments playing a role. Forward-thinking companies have realised that behaving sustainably can ensure their success; whether through managing risks, achieving efficiencies or establishing a meaningful relationship with customers. It’s an exciting area to work in and I’m often impressed by the level of commitment and enlightenment.

How legitimate is the perception that CRS is tokenistic?

Tough question! Companies are certainly motivated to keep their stakeholders happy, so if regulators, investors and consumers ask them to behave better, that is really powerful. I don’t see that as tokenistic, but it’s worth maintaining a critical eye. Are corporates focusing their efforts on the areas where they can have the most impact? Do they actually do what they say they will?

Let’s celebrate the good behaviour too, though. I see companies doing impressive, ground-breaking things for the benefit of society, and it also supports the bottom line – whether by building the brand, boosting sales or driving efficiency. These projects offer a good model for the rest of the industry and won’t be cut when budgets are under pressure.

Amidst the critiques, do you think there are misconceptions around the role of corporates in terms of social impact?

I think we’re right to expect companies to respect the needs of society and the environment. That being said, CRS works best when organisations take a really long term view, so I’d like to see some structural changes that incentivise ‘super long-termism’: making it more profitable for companies to act with a 100-year horizon. That way, the companies that invest in their future workforce, consumers and natural resources are the ones that will be successful now. When a company like Unilever is vulnerable to takeover, it shows that even being a sustainability leader still doesn’t offer total security.

Have you noticed a change in the way graduates and young professionals approach corporate careers in terms of social impact?

I love the start-up community, but I’m troubled by the anti-corporate sentiment I often hear from people joining the workforce. You can have a really positive impact in a corporate job, whether it’s developing marketing campaigns that break down archaic social stereotypes, or machine parts that reduce waste, or making the logistics run smoothly. I think young professionals miss out on a lot of opportunities if they discount corporate careers.   

What advice would you give graduates or young professionals seeking a career in CRS?

You have so much more choice once you’ve got some professional, relevant experience, so don’t over-think your first move. Get in there and start racking up some experience, whether in-house or in a consultancy. Once you’ve got your foot on the ladder you can consider where you’ll have the most impact.

On that note, Carnstone offers regular, paid internships – they’re a great way to learn!

Any great things people can read/people they can follow to learn a little more about some of the CRS work being done in the UK?

The Institute of CR & Sustainability is a good source of information, with a free fortnightly newsletter detailing research, events and opportunities.


Interested in reading more content like this? Sign up for our weekly UK newsletter here.