At the beginning of last year, Elizabeth Knight, a 32-year-old Peckham based project manager, found herself standing in the draughty offices of a small climate charity packing boxes for eight hours a day.
‘There were a few moments when I wondered if I’d made the right decision,’ she laughs. Just a few weeks before had been working in tech, managing huge teams and splitting her time between London and the Middle East. ‘With my old career, what I kept coming back to was the sheer amount of money, talent and time that was being poured into the projects. It was cool to oversee the development of an app which controlled a digital shower but I kept thinking, “What if we put the same amount of effort into something that could improve the world.”’
At the end of 2019 she decided to do just that; she left her job and applied for volunteering roles within the climate sector. ‘Honestly it wasn’t about being personally dissatisfied. I loved my job, and the trappings of it — the travel, the parties, as well as the salary — but I just realised that I had skills and expertise that could be used to make a difference. I thought it was worth a try.
She is part of a growing number who are willing to forgo big pay cheques and job security in the name of, as another contributor to this story put it, ‘aligning career and soul’. ‘We are at a tipping point,’ says Knight. ‘Even five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of making career decisions based on my ethics. Now I wouldn’t think of going to a company without having a clear idea of their values and how their work impacts the world.’
Deloitte’s 2021 annual global survey of millennial and Gen Z attitudes found two generations (who together make up almost half of the global workforce) ‘determined to hold themselves and others accountable on society’s most pressing issues’. And that accountability extends beyond the personal. Climate, access to health care, diversity and inclusion — where once it may have been enough to consider oneself an ‘ethical consumer’ who shopped green and donated to charity, now we are determined to make ethical choices in our careers, too. It follows similar findings from LinkedIn: according to its workplace culture survey, 71 per cent of professionals ‘say they would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that has a mission they believe in and shared values’.
‘There comes a point where you look at your work and think, “I’m not doing anything bad, but I’m also not making anything better,”’ says 28-year-old Becky Okell, who lives in Hackney. After graduating from London College of Fashion with a degree in fashion business, she spent years working for companies including Nike, Caravan Coffee Roasters and the creative agency Anyways. Then in June 2019, she left the safety of full-time employment to work on the business she had dreamed up with her partner, Huw Thomas: Paynter Jackets.
‘At Paynter we create made to-order, limited-edition jackets. We release four styles of jacket each year, with a maximum run of 750 per style. They go on sale at a predetermined date and each jacket is assigned to a customer before we make it. The idea is that we only buy enough fabric for what we sell.’
In the age of fast fashion, Okell wanted to create a business model that didn’t rely on mass production. ‘Each style tends to sell out in about three minutes,’ says Okell. ‘The question we’re most often asked is, how we’re going to scale the business, how we’re going to make more money.’ But beyond making enough to survive, Okell’s ambitions for Paynter run towards ethical reform rather than bigger profit margins. ‘The point isn’t to make us rich — it’s always been about trying to showcase a business model that works, without huge amounts of churn and waste.’
On a personal level, making career choices that align with our beliefs and give us a sense of purpose (beyond just paying the bills) has obvious benefits. As economist and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, Arthur C Brooks wrote recently in US magazine The Atlantic, ‘Some of the squishiest aspects of a job are also the ones that make it most rewarding: the values held by your company and your co-workers.’
‘What motivates people to go to work has been changing for a while,’ says Joe Wiggins director of corporate communications at Glassdoor. But he argues that there’s also a practical truth about why being selective with where we choose to work pays off. ‘Employees — and I would argue that it’s not just younger generations — are looking to future-proof their careers. And part of that is working at organisations that reflect well on them as individuals, with values that align with their personal brands.’ Beyond only fulfilment, being associated with companies that are seen to be doing good in the world is, he argues, is a savvy career move. ‘But it has to feel real, not just like the company is paying lip service.’
In a world where peeking behind the velvet curtain of an organisation is as easy as logging on to a site such as Glassdoor, ‘those seeking to hire the best talent are having to think really carefully about how they’re perceived,’ says Wiggins. And a shiny manifesto on the company website is unlikely to cut it. It has become a big enough concern that a new kind of consultancy has sprung up to help businesses go above and beyond. ‘There’s always been a lot of ethical posturing,’ says Florence Huntington-Whiteley. ‘But then in the past year, with all the social mobilisation, from the climate strikes to Black Lives Matter, it became a lot more serious. It was, quite frankly, panic stations for a lot of CEOs.’
Huntington-Whiteley (sister of model Rosie) is one of the three co-founders, alongside Faith Robinson and Claire Yurika Davis, of CogDis, a consultancy that helps brands operate more ethically. The name is a play on the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, meaning the discomfort a person feels when their actions don’t align with their morals or beliefs. CogDis’s focus is on ‘being on the right side [of history],’ says Huntington-Whiteley. ‘Not just doing the performative stuff, but creating new models and structures within businesses to help them operate in a way that will improve the world.’
For CogDis, many of the ethical quagmires that companies find themselves in can be traced back to what Robinson calls ‘the idea that you should suspend your human self when you come into an office.’ ‘For years it has meant that companies have been allowed to operate in ways that we would never accept in our lives outside of work — ways that are contrary to us as humans,’ says Robinson. They try to ‘get people to align their caring, human sides with their work personas.’
All three founders come from a fashion background (Huntington-Whiteley previously worked in marketing at Nike, Robinson at sustainability forum Global Fashion Agenda and Davis recently shuttered her zero-waste fashion brand, Hanger) and they still take on other projects. ‘So that’s been interesting for us to navigate,’ says Huntington-Whiteley, whose side-hustle includes modelling for brands such as Alexander McQueen. ‘We’ve been forced to think really carefully about who we choose to work with in all aspects of our careers. I’ve been dropped from campaigns because I’ve asked brands to clarify what they mean by “ethical” or “sustainable”, but that’s okay, it isn’t about making the most money, it’s about living with purpose.’
They’ve seen first-hand the growing restlessness among workers who are trying to find more meaning in their post-pandemic lives. ‘The past year has given us all an opportunity to look at our lives objectively,’ says Davis. ‘A moment to confront our own mortality and think: “If I survive this, I’m going to live a better, more honest life.” And we can see that within workplaces, too.’ But that doesn’t mean they haven’t met pockets of resistance. ‘The idea that you leave your human self at the door is pervasive,’ says Robinson. In fact, the people who most often ‘get’ their work are students. ‘We try to articulate the ethics of business in a new way,’ she continues. ‘Young people understand quite intuitively.’ This is a good sign as far as Robinson, Davis and Huntington-Whiteley are concerned — those young people are the ones who are set to take over.
It is important to note that risking one’s career for ethical reasons is a utopian move many people cannot afford to make. ‘I was at the right time in my life,’ says Okell. ‘I’m in my late 20s, not financially responsible for anyone and I had savings. I can see how difficult it would be for parents who have to provide for their children. To take a risk, even if it’s for the absolute best reasons, might just not be possible.’ Knight agrees: ‘I happened to be in the very fortunate position of having savings. I could afford to volunteer.’
After two months volunteering and six months in an entry-level role, Knight is now working for World Wildlife Fund for Nature. ‘I earn about a third less than I did in tech and I’m one level below where I was in terms of progression,’ she says. ‘But I feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world, which is incredible