Net Impact Leadership Team member Melissa Small sat down with Cynthia Wilkinson, director of Supply Chain Sustainability at Staples, to hear about how she ended up in her current role, her passion for sustainability and advice that she has for current Net Impact members looking to pursue a sustainability-focused career.
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
I’ve always wanted to make a difference. It was always one of those things that was really important to me. When I was doing work in supply chain, we starting talking about how to make buildings more green, and that initially started the ball rolling on my interest in sustainability. I began thinking about how I could focus more on sustainability in my own life. Eventually, those conversations and my own personal interest morphed into a full-time role in sustainability.
How did you make the transition from a purely supply chain role to a full-time sustainability role?
Before my current role, I was the director of Global Facilities Design at Staples. In that position, I started having dialogue with some of the sustainability experts within the company, such as Mark Buckley, Vice President of Environmental Affairs. This led to integration of sustainability into that role. From there, I let my boss know about my interest in sustainability, so that when conversations started happening at the highest levels of the company and opportunities arose, I was thought of for those opportunities. I’m a firm believer that luck favors the prepared.
Can you walk me through a typical day in your job at Staples?
There’s really no such thing as a typical day. Right now my work focuses on sustainable packaging. Since it’s a fairly new subject for a lot of businesses, my job generally falls into two categories. First, I work on analytics and team capabilities to tell the story to our business leaders about how sustainable packaging can help us achieve our sustainability and business goals. Second, I tell the story and engage with our own internal cross-functional partners and vendors to start to drive that change.
What is the most interesting and fun aspect of your job?
There are so many interesting and fun aspects – I don’t know how to choose! Since it’s all so new for us, while it’s challenging, when we start to make progress it’s really exciting because we are making an impact not only on our own company, but globally as well. In addition, having dialogue and learning about sustainability issues from people both within and outside the company allows me to gain other people’s perspectives, while at the same time share the possibilities that I envision.
You mentioned it’s a challenging job, what would you say makes it the most challenging for you?
The pace of progress. Having come from a manufacturing and supply chain background, I’m used to driving results quickly. In that area, quick results are imperative. However, with sustainability there are a lot of changes in direction, so flexibility and resilience is key. I am always thinking we should be going faster. It’s hard to pace myself to the pace of others.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I would like to have successfully driven packaging reductions and built capabilities for Staples and have moved onto the next sustainability challenge within the company.
When did you first become involved with Net Impact Boston? What keeps you involved?
My first introduction to Net Impact was when I was asked to speak on panel at the annual Net Impact Conference when Staples and International Paper held a competition at the event.
I’ve always been interested in working with younger generations to open up possibilities to them. I was fascinated to learn that Net Impact has that connection and want to help drive the message of linking business to sustainability.
What advice do you have for our Net Impact Boston members who are reading this?
The possibilities are endless. Keep your options open, particularly by considering a business route and bringing sustainability with it. Be one of those tempered radicals that change sustainability at an organization from within!
Sustainability is an exciting place to be and very rewarding. You spend most of your waking hours at work, and if you don’t like what you do you are wasting your life. It’s really easy to love my job when I have an opportunity to make a global impact with the work that I do.
Finally, I would say that sustainability is an “and” not an “or.” If we get more people thinking this way, it will accelerate our change and progress. It is those who are coming out of school now who can help us because they are already living their lives in a more sustainable way.