Strategic CSR and Consulting Projects (UGBA 192P) Class Photo, December 2014

By Katarina Bagherian, Undergraduate Student at UC Berkeley, BA Political Science, ‘14

Taking Michael Kobori’s Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility class was a game-changer for me. It dispelled myths about sustainability in business. He created an arena for exploring critical questions about the suitability of sustainability in business through consulting projects for top companies and through exposure to CSR gurus such as Facebook, Blackrock, and eBay’s Chief Sustainability Officers and Mr. Kobori’s own 20-years of experience in the field.

A Changing Field

Through lectures and one-on-one talks with our guest speakers, I learned how new, malleable, and growing the corporate sustainability field is. Mr. Kobori offered examples of topics that were simply not discussed at corporations twenty – or even ten – years ago. Bill Weihl, Director of Sustainability at Facebook, discussed innovative ways to incorporate sustainability into web services. Michelle Edkins, Head of Responsible Investing at BlackRock, exemplified a pragmatic tone about sustainability that is critical for it to gain traction in the financial industry.

Critical Analysis of the Sustainability… of Sustainability Initiatives

The atmosphere that the course created around the guest speakers and lectures was perhaps just as valuable as the speakers themselves. Mr. Kobori, also the Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., genuinely encouraged critical, probing questions about his own work and that of his CSR colleagues. During his own presentation on Greenpeace’s confrontation with a Levis’s facility, he was candid about the challenges that his team faced and how to learn from them for the future.

At times, student questions even guided the course conversation to span new topic areas including public policy, economics and political science. One question led to a class-wide discussion about alternative systems of global governance and how the current system could be molded to encourage an environment conducive to social and environmental responsibility.

An Inside-Look into the Work of CSR Professionals

Working on consulting projects directly with CSR professionals at Fortune 500 companies, as part of this course, offered rare insights into the processes undertaken and challenges faced by professionals in the field on a daily basis. My team had the privilege of exploring best practices in cross-industry grievance mechanisms for Chevron. A grievance mechanism can be described as a process for channeling complaints from a complainant through to the appropriate contact within an organization so that the complaint can be appropriately addressed. Because Chevron has operations in remote locations across the globe, they were interested in creating a comprehensive, uniform grievance mechanism to continue addressing concerns relating to their global operations. Our findings will be applied in the creation of this global feedback process.

Through bi-monthly check-ins with our client contact, we learned how to apply their internal vernacular to accurately compile our report and presentation deliverables. Through phone interviews with top sustainability consultants and NGOs, we learned the limitations of current grievance mechanisms.

For example we asked questions such as: How does a company headquartered in the US with operations in Kazakhstan get the accurate opinions of Kazakhstani women in a community bordering an operation when the local culture might discourage the voicing of their opinions? How can a company ensure that the grievances they are receiving are representative of the community—or that the community even understands how to use the grievance mechanism?

Through exploring the processes used by companies such as Coca Cola and BHP, we got a first-hand look at the noble aims of breakthroughs in communication and technology that are ensuring community members in remote operations are safe and respected.

The exposure to a nascent but rapidly growing field through CSR “intrapreneurs” at game-changing companies was unprecedented. This opportunity – to glimpse into days in the life of CSR professionals -was instrumental for me, in building an accurate and more realistic understanding of the field. If you are a student who is interested in business, people or the planet, and are open to the idea that business can be better at being sustainable than it is today, then this class will at the very least offer you a fresh lens through which to view business—if not a conviction that a better business climate is possible and the inspiration to pursue it.