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Green Pioneer interview: Emma Osborne, Citizen Kind CEO

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11 min read
AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli
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Emma Osborne is the CEO and Founder of Citizen Kind, a London-based staffing and recruitment agency bringing together ethical businesses looking for talent and job seekers searching for eco-friendly, and cruelty-free roles promoting animal welfare.

Founded in 2018, Citizen Kind is one of the first recruitment agencies focussed on matching companies and candidates whose values align.

With over 20 years recruitment experience, six of which were spent working in Asia, Emma was inspired to found Citizen Kind following a trip around the globe, which made her realise the importance of helping to create a world that aligned with her values.

I caught up with Emma to discuss how ethical and ‘green’ jobs, companies, and recruitment are changing, what businesses are doing to become more sustainable and environmentally-friendly, and how, these days more than ever, it’s important for people to make a difference in the world through their work.

You founded Citizen Kind in 2018 to align candidates, companies and your own ethical values with the work they and you do. How has the market changed in the last three-four years? Are you finding that demand and offer for ethical jobs has increased?

The demand for ethical jobs has definitely increased and I think that will be a trend we continue to see in the coming years. For the first time in a long time, candidates have realised that they have the power to pick and choose from the roles on offer, leaving more savvy companies starting to take steps to retain their talent by extending notice periods, giving pay increases, offering flexible working, equity/profit share as well as additional benefits.

Which sectors do you think are more eco-conscious and free of cruelty, or strive to be?

The most consumer-facing sectors tend to feel the pressure of environmental consciousness the most, since consumers often site environmental credentials as a reason for purchase, and it will cost them dearly not to bend to meet consumer demands. The B2B sector has been slower to follow suit, but the rise in popularity of B corp certification shows that people are concerned about how people are treated in the workplace as well as their carbon footprint. The rise of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) within the investment landscape has provided much for the B2B media to report on, though in reality, the amounts of cash flowing into the ethical financial sector pales in comparison to that still reaching the more traditional investments on offer, such as banking, or oil and gas.

Do you think there is resistance from certain sectors to become more ethical?

Ethical is one of those terms which is open to interpretation and for many companies, even the idea creates such a large volume of additional work that I think it puts them off even trying! This is not helped by cancel culture which can undermine the efforts of many small businesses who are trying to ‘do the right thing’ but fall short in some areas, which folks on the internet are only too quick to point out.
Perfection can definitely be the enemy of the good here and a spectrum of ‘good to bad behaviour’ would be incredibly useful. Companies like Oatly benefitted from the ‘halo effect’ that surrounds many plant-based products, but as soon as they took investment from Black Rock Capital, they were lanced by some who accused them of selling out.
To my mind, PE firms like BlackRock invest huge amounts every year, and the more that gets siphoned into companies doing some good, the better! We’ve got to get pragmatic and do what we can to make a difference.
The media plays an important role in maintaining the status quo and often caters to the messages of their advertisers rather than reporting the urgency required to address climate change across all industries, which hinders progress.

How can existing jobs that are currently not set up to be particularly ethical or have sustainability goals become ‘greener’?

Anyone in any company can ‘greenify’ their job! I sit on the board of a not-for-profit entity called Vegan Leaders which helps Fortune 500 employees make their workplaces more compassionate and inclusive places for their staff. Even switching the milk in the company fridge for a plant-based equivalent sends a message about how progressive and thoughtful the business is when it comes to their environmental footprint, the health of their staff, and inclusivity. Companies need to dedicate time to addressing their carbon footprint and, unless existing employees volunteer to take on these roles, budget constraints can slow progress. By raising your hand, you also open a new window of opportunity for yourself to grow and progress your career in a new direction. So if you care by voluntarily investing your time at first, it could really pay off later!
Starting an internal environmental group is a great way to harness financial backing and support for your ideas as well.

Do you think Gen Z have higher expectations of finding roles with a purpose, aligned to their ethical beliefs than previous generations?

Gen Z have been unfairly burdened with the weight of all the pollution build-up created by generations past so it’s no surprise that they are more motivated to fix the problems now staring us in the face. With 2030 looming as the decade when they would have children, they want to be part of creating a world where that feels like a possibility they might choose for themselves.

Do you think generations before Gen Z are finally speaking up and demanding more eco-conscious roles, whether perhaps before they were afraid to speak up and would take a job that didn’t align with their ethics?

I’m sure that witnessing the power Gen Z has yielded thus far in turning the tables towards a greener future has emboldened some of those from generations gone before to speak up. The pitiful lack of commitments made at COP 26 and the link between the pandemic and industrial animal farming have only served to exacerbate this. As we have realised the precariousness of our own health, we have all been forced to confront our own morbidity and the idea of making a difference with your life has become both appealing as much as it is necessary. The question, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ plagues anyone stuck in an unfulfilling role as they trudge through their daily tasks which increasingly is causing them to reject corporate life and opt for more autonomous work.
I believe this is the driver behind ‘The Great Resignation’ – perhaps we will look back on this decade as ‘The Great Reshuffle’, as people choose to work their values.

Overall, do you think ethical, sustainable and green jobs are remunerated as much as the same roles in non strictly ethical companies?

Sadly, there is still a pay gap between roles which offer more green credentials. This is the cost of capitalism – many of these companies prioritise people and environment above profits, which in the short term comes with higher costs (though I would argue, much greater rewards in the long term). The cost of NOT behaving ethically is not one that companies currently face, but if the government were to introduce policies which placed a financial burden upon companies based on their energy consumption, waste generation and circularity, I suspect this could change very quickly.

What defines an eco-conscious job? Are there guidelines to meet the criteria and is it regulated?

Definitions are sketchy at best and outlandish at worst! Not regulated at all and even companies in the oil and gas industry will have sustainability departments. How does that work?! If you are keen to work more purposefully, do your research to make sure you don’t end up helping to greenwash a company’s image despite their negative impacts. Transparency is the key to this – if you can’t find out the answers, then the chances are there are unethical practices to blame.

Is greenwashing an issue in recruitment too?

Greenwashing is a term for businesses claiming green credentials while operating in environmentally-unfriendly ways. A good example are the ads for BP’s biofuels which make up less than 5% of their offering. In recruitment, it manifests through using terms like ‘ethical’ – it’s fraught with issues. A company who claims to have zero carbon-footprint, and an exemplary growth track record might also be run by someone whose sexist behaviour creates a toxic environment in another way. There can also be a large discrepancy between the company values, and the experience of an employee within that business.
These things are impossible to measure accurately and so as a recruiter who works with companies doing good in the world, we choose the roles we work on based on their impact, the hiring managers, the brand vision and values, and give the candidate as much information as possible about the companies we represent, including insisting upon at least two interview stages, and doing the candidate selection ourselves to eliminate bias as much as possible.

What can businesses, big or small, do to become more ethical?

In light of the controversy raised at COP 26 and in the wake of the ongoing need for more diversity and inclusion, businesses would be wise to incorporate ethical and environmental commitments into their values, and hire employees into roles where they are responsible for overseeing the sustainability of the business. These roles could include marketing, sustainability management, procurement, data science and analysis, communications, HR, finance and, ideally be present on the board to ensure there is full accountability taken for the promises made externally.

The government has had a lot to say about ‘levelling up’ recently, with a proposed green revolution at the heart of it all. In your opinion, are there achievable plans in place to help to create a greener workforce and work environment?

None that I’ve seen, though if such a policy exists, I’d love to read it!

Many candidates want to work for ethical, green or vegan companies, and also companies want employees whose ethics align with their businesses. In terms of ethics, what are companies’ requirements when looking for the right candidate?

Companies predominately are looking for candidates whose values chime with theirs. That resonance is the reason I set up Citizen Kind and is the secret sauce to staff
retention. No company is perfect, but if people feel like you are doing your best to do what you believe to be the right thing, then they are much more likely to both forgive your shortcomings and celebrate your wins as their own.

In terms of recruitment, what are the main differences between a non-overtly ethical recruitment company and one like Citizen Kind? Do you ever turn companies or candidates down?

We ask a lot of questions from both our clients and candidates that I’m told don’t come up when they speak to other recruitment consultancies; namely around motivations, values, beliefs and ethics. We have great conversations regardless of the outcome and I can’t think of a time when we have rejected a candidate on that basis. Candidates will withdraw themselves from a process if they feel that they are incompatible with the company values, but this is a rarity. We also centre the business around candidates since our main goal is to support people in their transition towards creating a life legacy they can be proud of. Sometimes this even means we encourage them to set up their own businesses!

Citizen Kind is quite revolutionary – one of a kind (excuse the pun). What challenges have you faced, setting it up and running it?

Like many, the pandemic hit us really hard as a business whose main income relied on recruitment services. We work across industries – food production, investment, digital technology, e-commerce, hospitality, media and events and biotech so we were lucky to have a spread of clients whose businesses were less affected. We survived by adding consultancy services to our offering and even sales training! Necessity is the mother of invention!
It is great to see that companies are beginning to start hiring more senior leaders again and the amount of investment coming into the sustainability, ethical and plant-based industries mean we are likely to have a very busy year ahead!

Do you think there will be more recruitment agencies, like Citizen Kind, offering careers for the eco-conscious?

I think as people start changing how they live, the things they buy and the food they eat (particularly the latter!), they unlock a part of themselves that society begins oppressing in them as children. They realise that they have a limited time on Earth and want to leave something behind to be proud of: a legacy, a contribution, an act of service. Films and novels have been telling us for years that the secret to a happy and fulfilled life is love – the time has come to bring those ideas into the workplace and spread them around!


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