Ideals Before Dollars

July 7, 2000

By Michael Jessen

A growing number of university and college graduates are using their hearts to find a job.

No longer satisfied simply with a big salary from their first job, many graduates are pledging to help change the world. At commencement ceremonies at over 50 schools this year, graduates wore green ribbons to signify they had signed the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility.

The voluntary pledge reads: "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve those aspects of any organization for which I work."

The Graduation Pledge was written in 1987 at Humboldt State University in California by a group of students who wished to apply their social and environmental values to their careers. Taken by students at less than a dozen schools just two years ago, the pledge has now reached more than 50 U.S. campuses, including Harvard, MIT, and Notre Dame.

A national pledge campaign has been coordinated since 1996 by Professor Neil Wollman of Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren school in Indiana, where more than 50 percent of graduates typically take the pledge.

"Over a million seniors graduate every year," notes Wollman. "If you have even a significant minority of graduates over the years who take this seriously, you could eventually have a significant impact on the workplace and on society."

Since graduating, the pledged students have screened potential employers for the company's environmental impact, treatment of employees, contribution to the community and other factors, sometimes refusing job offers from firms whose policies compromised the students' values. Once on the job, many have launched on-site recycling programs or community-service initiatives.

Occasionally, the pledge-takers have risked their positions by taking controversial stands. One worker persuaded management to refuse a chemical weapons contract. Another removed racist language from a company policy manual.

At some schools, taking the pledge has been an education in itself. This year's pledge committee at Harvard required interested students to attend one 90-minute panel discussion on the environment, volunteering, corporate social responsibility, socially responsible investing, or international development and human rights. Speakers came from groups like Physicians for Human Rights, Grameen Foundation USA, Greenpeace, and Clean Water Action.

Harvard's pledge committee also provided wallet-size booklets of practical tips for making a difference in these areas, city-specific resource guides, and listings of opportunities for social and environmental initiatives within consulting firms, investment banks, and other mainstream companies.

"We felt that for every person who took the pledge, our approach would make it a lot more likely for them to actually keep it," says Sinead Walsh, coordinator of Harvard's campaign. About 10 percent or 151 of this year's 1,676 Harvard graduates pledged they won't forget about social and environmental responsibility, no matter how far they go in corporate America.

Walsh and Wollman said they also hope the pledge will show companies that social and environmental responsibility matter to the students they want to recruit.

"If these companies lose one or two of their top Harvard recruits over these social and environmental responsibilities, I think they would seriously reconsider what opportunities they do provide," says Walsh.

Wollman concedes many that take the pledge quickly forget it. But many don't he says, and points to former Manchester student Christine Miller, a chemist who declined to work on a project she was afraid might be used for immoral purposes and later changed jobs.

"After I left that company, when I was looking for a new job, I kept that pledge in mind," said Miller, who graduated in 1990. "I wanted something more in line with my values."

Instituting the pledge gets at the heart of a good education and can benefit society as a whole. Not only does it remind students of the ethical implications of the knowledge and training they received, but it can also help lead to a socially conscious citizenry and a better world.

ONE SMALL STEP - It doesn't appear students at any Canadian university or college have taken on the pledge. More information about the pledge can be found at the Harvard site at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~nickins/gradpledge/ or the Manchester College site at http://ares.manchester.edu/department/peaceStudies/gpa.html. For anyone no longer in school, investigate signing the Earth Charter Initiative at www.earthcharter.org. We can all have a positive impact by small everyday actions.

RESOURCES - Check out the Harvard web site listed above for informative everyday tips and links to sites like the best 100 companies to work for and the 100 best corporate citizens. By visiting www.freedonation.com, you can make multiple daily free donations in support of AIDS or cancer research, support the arts or children, protect the environment, promote education, house the homeless, or end hunger. The Hunger Site at www.thehungersite.com and the Rainforest Site at www.therainforestsite.com allow one free daily donation to feed the hungry or save rainforest land. Read Melissa Everett's book "Making a Living While Making a Difference: The Expanded Guide to Creating Careers with a Conscience" (New Society Publishers, 1999) or Mark Albion's "Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Life" (Warner Books, 2000).

Michael Jessen is an environmental consultant and owner of toenail environmental services, which specializes in helping businesses with sustainability issues. He can be reached by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com or by phone at 250/229-4621. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at http://www.toenail.org/.


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