Exit Interview: Chuck Bennett, Aveda

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who have recently left their jobs.

I met Chuck Bennett in the early 2000s, when he was The Conference Board’s thought leader on corporate citizenship. In 2007, he moved over to be head sustainability at Aveda, the natural care products company, which had been acquired 10 years earlier by the Estée Lauder Companies. During Bennett’s six years at Aveda, he expanded Aveda’s already impressive leadership initiatives while also helping to bring such practices to its parent company — infecting the mothership, as it were.

The Aveda job was a capstone for Bennett, who turns 70 this week. As he prepares to retire later this month, he reflected on his career: the benefits of studying geography, the role of ego in effecting change and the joys of mentoring the incoming generation of sustainability professionals.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Tell me about the job that you're leaving.

Chuck Bennett: The job that I'm leaving is Vice President Earth and Community Care for Aveda. I've been here for just over six years. There have been two big parts of this job, one of which has been to help Aveda reposition itself as a brand, from one focused primarily on environment, to one focused on environment and people, or earth and community, which is part of the reason why the title for the role was changed when I came.

We've been working for the past six years on bringing more balance — not backing off in any of our long-term environmental commitments, but focusing more on such things as local giving through our retail network, combined with volunteering, and growing our Earth Month program dramatically.

The other part of the job that's been both interesting and fun, and sometimes frustrating, has been working with the parent company, Estée Lauder, as they work towards establishing a more overarching position and approach for corporate responsibility.

Makower: You came to this with a fairly diverse background.

Bennett: Very diverse. I started out in teaching. I moved into environmental consulting, first for two companies, then on my own. Then I moved into corporate environmental work, first at Adolph Coors company. After that, I moved into corporate environmental and occupational health and safety for Nabisco Foods. Following that, I spent seven years with The Conference Board as a senior researcher in global corporate citizenship, focusing on a variety of issues related to sustainability and the evolution of sustainability in the corporate world, with the primary focus on energy and climate change.

Makower: You mentioned once that your geography background was helpful to you in your career. Explain that.

Bennett: I have nothing but good things to say about my geography background, for a variety of reasons, but I think the most important one is that it enabled me to be in a generalist in the field that I ended up in. The reason for that was a combination in geography of both the natural sciences — biology, geology and meteorology — and the social sciences — anthropology and sociology. What I found is that this kind of diverse background has been very useful in my professional career, both from the perspective of understanding and being knowledgeable about it and being able to manage technical issues — such as Superfund sites, remediation or mine reclamation projects — but also understanding the organizations and the people in which I've needed to get these various kinds of things done.

Next page: No ego