Climate Corps Alumni Discuss Internship Struggles & Triumphs: Citing the Business Case for Sustainability Isn't Enough

Climate Corps Alumni Discuss Internship Struggles & Triumphs: Citing the Business Case for Sustainability Isn't Enough

Today was day two of training for the 26 of the 51 fellows selected by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for the 2010 class of Climate Corps, a unique internship program that connects business schools students with companies who want to initiate the discussion of sustainability internally, with an emphasis on energy efficiency. The highlight of today's agenda was a panel of Climate Corps alumni who discussed their experience as well as gave practical and relevant tips to the new class of interns.

As they addressed several aspects from their individual internships—at a bunch of technology, IT and utility companies—several key observations stood out. These observations/suggestions should be particularly helpful for those of you who want to initiate discussion on sustainability and corporate responsibility at companies, or whose roles are increasingly seeing more and more overlap with talks of transparency, energy efficiency and environmental metrics as key performance indicators.

For those who didn’t get a chance to read my brief overview of this internship program yesterday, I highly recommended that you take a read as it will provide valuable context for the pointers that follow. Also worth remembering: these business school students interned with their respective companies for 10-12 weeks with heavy emphasis on collecting data on their energy use and culminating the program by presenting recommendations that would help make them energy efficient, keeping in mind the bottom-line at all times. What stands out most about the program is that it emphasizes that the fellows keep in mind at all times that they will be asked tough questions regarding the business case for pursuing sustainable business practices, the return on investment in these measures, and how they all tie into building a responsible company.

Discussing sustainability across departments

"You'll be dealing with a lot of people, who will all have a different perspective and understanding of sustainability and energy efficiency. Engineers will understand data and energy flow, business development will understand the business case and ROI, facility people will understand technicalities and others will only understand the costs involved. It will be up to how you leverage that to build a network of understanding."

"Data collection was very hard at first since the company did not have a system in place to systemize energy usage metrics. The facility managers knew what I was asking for but didn’t really have it in place."

"The tension at times was tangible because you are seen as someone who will take their comfort away from them, or recommend changing the way they operate every day." Most of us can recall a particular episode from The Office, where consultants are asked to recommend how to cut costs, including layoffs and double-sided printing, and while the show attacked the issue comically, we can all relate to how uncomfortable any mention of "cost-cutting" makes us. Anything that disarrays our comfort zone is bound to create tension in the workplace. And it doesn’t take much to do so, with it being as simple as transitioning from throwaway plastic cups to ceramic wash-your-own mugs.

The power of personal relationships

"I had to make sure I work according to their time. You will need to talk to a lot of personnel and it will serve you well to respect their time and work around their schedule. "

"Don't underestimate the power of personal relationships. You have to understand that the people you are dealing with will need attention to their emotional as well as business needs because your recommendations could change the way they operate drastically. You just cannot be careful enough."

What to expect from your Internship

"It is possible to achieve your personal goals out of the internship. All it takes is time management, networking and making sure your circle of associates at the company understand your objectives and expertise."

"There are a lot of organizational and policy changes that you'll have to navigate. Just proving the business case won't make them change their entire way of operating. So concentrate on showing them the complete picture, the ROI, the numbers, and the eventual benefits of becoming sustainable in their practices."

Getting access to management

"Coaching the person responsible for initiating the recommended changes was helpful. The real decision makers were not going to let an intern do the talking. Having the responsible manager on my side and coaching them to take charge of the meeting was the only way to get through."

""It was almost halfway through the summer when I felt educated enough to start having one-on-one meetings with the people in charge. As an outsider, there is much to learn and analyze before it all begins to make sense."

Catalyzing Change as an Intern

"I asked the teams to tell me their biggest challenges. It is important to listen because you are coming from outside and threatening to change the way they conduct business."

"It is very important to tell them that you are here [in many ways] to share their pain and address their concerns and the things they care about the most. I know that sounds cheesy but so much becomes easier if you connect with them emotionally first."

Benefits of the Internship

"At the very least, you learn the vocabulary of the industry. You learn the business and environmental importance of sustainability across the spectrum and how to talk to people of all backgrounds. It helps a lot to realize that conversing with multiple stakeholders with different backgrounds will require a version that relates to them. One approach does not fit all."

"I was able to an in-depth understanding of the many aspects of energy efficiency and sustainability as well as a wide breadth of key components like LEED, green buildings, climate legislation and the whole debate over carbon emissions."

If nothing else, these perspectives should be sufficient to convey that change can begin from anywhere, even the intern's desk, and that it is possible to show real business results without being the chief sustainability officer or having an engineering degree. What is key, however, is to have confidence in your skills, know that the initial push will require legwork and patient ears, and that your business school training and passion for sustainability can be combined successfully to show your employer a substantial return on investment.


Aman Singh is the CSR Editor at, where she focuses on how corporate diversity practices and sustainability translate into recruitment and strategic development. Her blog, In Good Company, discusses on many of these issues.