How to talk to companies about sustainability

Our goal is to prep students to engage potential employers in a conversation about the companies’ sustainability related initiatives, practices and employee opportunities. On this webpage, we provide students with questions to ask and suggestions on how to ask these questions.

The following recommendations were developed by the Environmental Solutions Initiative at MIT

How to ask questions:

  • Think in advance about what you would like to learn from the recruiter. Then create a list of questions that you would like to ask, keeping in mind the time allotted for your conversation.
  • Think of your list of questions as a guide to the conversation, not a fixed list that you must get through. Better to actively listen and to respond to the answers of the interviewee than to stick to your list.
  • Listen, listen, and listen. Expect to spend at least 80% of the time listening, not talking.
  • Be mindful of time. It’s helpful to give the person a heads up a few minutes before the end of the time. Sometimes they will want to keep talking, but let them decide.
  • Be thankful. Be transparent in letting them know that you are grateful for this opportunity.
  • Be respectful. Your goal is not to grill or to judge the person with whom you are speaking, but rather to fill in your own knowledge gaps.

What questions to ask any company or organization:

Quick(er) openers– theoretically these could be yes or no answers, but better if not. Try to use these as a jumping off point to open up a broader discussion. Note two common acronyms: ESG = Environmental, Social and Governance, and CSR = Corporate Social Responsibility.

Does your company or organization…

  • … have relevant credentials, building certifications, or memberships in the area of sustainability (such as B-Corp, LEED, FSC, a member of the Science Based Targets Initiative or RE100, etc.)?
  • … build products or deliver services that are good for the environment?
  • … have sustainability-related goals and/or targets? If so, are they publicly available?
  • … publish an annual impact report (sometimes called an ESG report or CSR report) that updates stakeholders on its progress towards its sustainability-related goals?
  • … track its carbon footprint? If so, is it transparent about publicly disclosing its data (such as submitting to the Carbon Disclosure Project (aka the CDP), publishing in an annual impact report, or other)?
  • … have a ranking by any ESG rating agencies (such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), Sustainalytics, FTSE4Good, Oekom, etc.)
  • …publicly support policies and politics at the local, state and national levels that are focused on driving rapid decarbonization in line with the Paris Accords?
  • … work with manufacturers in its supply chain to help them move towards decarbonization

Dialogue starters– after starting with broader questions, move on to more in-depth ones.

  • What does sustainability mean at your company or organization?
  • How would you describe the perception of sustainability at your company or organization?
  • How much value does your company or organization place on sustainability?
  • How does sustainability fit into your company or organization’s strategy?
  • What role does sustainability play in guiding product design?
  • Is there attention to sustainable practices in day-to-day operations?
  • What sustainability initiatives are of highest priority for your company?
  • In what area(s) is your company or organization most keen on improving to further its positive impact?
  • Where does sustainability “live” in your company or organization? Who oversees sustainability in your organization?
  • How is your company or organization working to improve its carbon footprint?
  • How does your company or organization incentivize for investment or R&D in energy efficiency, renewable energy, zero-carbon technologies or other carbon-reduction innovations?
  • How does your firm practice ethical investing?
  • How does your organization educate employees about sustainability?
  • How could I get involved with sustainability as an employee at your company or organization?
  • Are employees rewarded for making progress on sustainability issues, and if so how?
  • To what extent does your company strive to be a leader within its industry on sustainability?

Don’t forget to ask!

Does your company or organization have any job openings available where I could bring a sustainability approach to the work? Are there specific jobs within the company that have a sustainability focus to which I could apply?

What if a recruiter does not have an answer?

  • Feel free to go on to another question if you feel this is a dead-end.
  • Otherwise you may be able to change the question into something the recruiter may be able to answer. For example instead of asking about how the company as a whole addresses climate change, you could ask about how people in the workplace incorporate sustainability into their work and actions.
  • If you have run out of questions or feel the conversation is headed in a direction that is not beneficial for you it could be time to thank the recruiter for their time and head your own way. More on that below.

How to exit a conversation

  • The main point is to exit politely and respectfully.
  • Thank the recruiter for their time, shake hands if appropriate and then say goodbye.
  • Keep in mind that neither party wants to waste time and the recruiter will likely be glad to respect both their own and your time.

Questions for industry-specific companies

There are some industries where it is appropriate to ask questions that are relevant to their particular line of work or operations. Look into recent industry-specific trends in sustainability to tailor your questions to ones that are most important to that sector.