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Caitlin Harren, MS/MBA ’13: Making a Sustainability Impact at Amazon

By Leslie Ellis

At the dinner table as a young kid, Caitlin Harren listened with rapt admiration as her father, a labor movement attorney, talked about his work. She vowed that one day she’d grow up to make a positive impact on the world, too.

Today, Harren, MS/MBA ’13, serves as director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability Solutions at Amazon.

The global retail company has committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 — 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement goal — with a focus on the well-being of the employees, customers, and communities it impacts. Amazon also co-founded The Climate Pledge, to encourage other companies to follow its lead.

“(My Sustainability Solutions role is) about taking work that Amazon has done really well and figuring out how we can make those tools and strategies accessible to everyone in the corporate sustainability and net-zero-carbon movements,” Harren said.

“The other half of my day-to-day is leading Amazon’s worldwide Social Responsibility team,” she said. “Social Responsibility’s mission is to make sure everyone in Amazon’s value chain is treated with dignity and respect. I manage the team that puts this into practice, worldwide.

“Environmental Sustainability and Social Sustainability go hand-in-hand  when you prioritize customer trust and long-term thinking," Harren said. “Amazon has these priorities woven into its DNA.”

Ross puts focus on positive impact

Harren said a “nerdy interest” in complex systems thinking attracted her to study global sustainability as an undergraduate at Smith College in Massachusetts. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in government and environmental science and policy. Then, she went to work in the nonprofit sector at the Sierra Club and for the New York state attorney general’s office of environmental affairs.

“Corporations were still very largely absent from discussions about environmental responsibility at that time,” Harren said. “I went back to business school specifically to infiltrate, to get inside and make change. I decided that the Michigan clout and network would open the most doors into globally influential companies.”

She also chose the Ross School of Business over less mainstream, more specialized institutions because it allowed her to pursue a dual degree. Harren earned a Full-Time MBA and a Master of Science in sustainable systems as a member of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

“Ross' focus on positive social impact and empowering purpose-driven professionals was a deciding factor for me,” Harren said.

From renegade to changemaker

When she accepted a job offer from Amazon and followed her spouse to Seattle for work, Harren sought core business experience to support her goal of becoming a chief sustainability officer - a  role that did not yet exist at Amazon.

In those early days, Harren acquired new skills, made herself valuable, and got to know different pockets of the business. She says the lessons she learned at Ross in finance, statistics, and negotiations were crucial to her successful transition into the corporate realm.

Within a year, Amazon began investing in a centralized, worldwide sustainability function. Harren found that her experience in the business combined with graduate training in systems thinking and industrial ecology made her an attractive candidate for the central sustainability team.

“I definitely went to business school to infiltrate businesses. I may have felt that way to this day if Amazon didn’t take such bold public action in terms of our commitments,” Harren said. “I don’t feel like a renegade within Amazon. I am definitely in a mainstream role with significant opportunity to influence Amazon's corporate strategy. I feel great about my ability to make a broad and far-reaching impact from here."

Harren said students who are interested in sustainability careers can learn from her experience.

“Keep your eye on the job you most want. But build your path there according to skills acquisition. Determine what skills you will need to be most effective in that top seat and go get them, as opposed to cutting the fastest track into a specialized role.

“There’s no one way to advance sustainability objectives through your career. You can go into a pure-play B corp or a nonprofit and do great work,” Harren said. “But if the strongest sustainability professionals don't also engage with the Fortune 500, we will miss every global goal. We need folks who feel strongly about environmental and social sustainability seated in every corner of the economy and society. There’s no wrong choice if you’re working in the right direction.”

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