The Sustainable MBA

Catherine Sheehy of UL Environment on careers

Catherine Sheehy

Statistically speaking, about 120 products in your home have the UL certification. UL is a testing, inspecting and certification firm that launched UL Environment to help manufacturers capture value for their sustainability efforts.

Bard MBA spoke to Catherine Sheehy, program manager for UL Environment’s Advisory Services team. With 20 years of project and program management experience, Sheehy manages a range of advisory projects including sustainability training initiatives, sustainability risk assessments and greener market positioning support.

She was a key member of the team that created UL 880 — a Standard for Sustainability of Manufacturing Organizations, UL’s first standard to address social and environmental responsibility issues at an enterprise level.

Sheehy holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation Sept. 25 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe. 

Bard MBA: Catherine, you worked in organization design and change enablement at Accenture, and previously on the Corporate Equality Index for the Human Rights Campaign, and as director of corporate benchmarking services at the Investor Responsibility Research Center. What made you come back to sustainability work after a few years in mainstream consulting?

Catherine Sheehy: Before my MBA, I worked in the Corporate Responsibility and ESG space and with LGBT diversity issues for the Human Rights Campaign. I thought, well, I want to go back and learn better how to do some of the things that I had been doing. I really wanted more corporate experience and decided to go into management consulting immediately after finishing my MBA. I felt that those consulting skills would be really useful for the mission-oriented, sustainability corporate responsibility work that I wanted to do.

At Accenture, I worked on change management, engagement and organizational design. I began to realize that I could use those tools to work on the issues that I was really concerned about and interested in within Accenture.

As part of the DC Accenture GreenTeam, my colleagues and I began to think about our own company’s environmental footprint and how we engaged with our clients. It was great; I was working on environmental and social issues and integrating those issues in the work that I was doing.

Ultimately, I was between engagements and began to think, ”What do I really want to do when I grow up?” I realized that I wanted to get back into the subject matter and content that I care about, and actually focus on the sustainability issues that I worked on earlier in my career. 

Bard MBA: What attracted you to UL?

Sheehy: UL was looking at safety in a wholly different way and had created this entity called UL Environment that was looking at the sustainability aspects of safety. Another aspect that really intrigued me about UL in the sustainability space is that we couch everything that we do in science. It’s essential to use rigorous analysis to parse out what we might intuitively think "makes sense" from what the data actually tells us about sustainability issues that we are all concerned about.

Bard MBA: As a safety testing, inspecting and certifying firm, UL may not have immediate name recognition for the average consumer. How do you explain UL’s core offerings, and how the UL Environment services fits in to the broader value proposition?

Sheehy: UL is a global company with almost 11,000 employees, and UL Environment is a 120-person business line that is innovating on new standards and testing for sustainability.

UL’s tagline is, "We’ve been working for a safer world since 1894." The 120-year-old company began at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. This newfangled thing called electricity was being showcased in a city that had suffered a tremendous fire just a few years ago. Underwriters were not willing to insure the location where electricity would be housed and showcased, so vendors invited Henry Merrill, a fire safety engineer from Boston, to develop the test and validate that building wouldn’t set on fire.

That was the founding of the organization and fire shock hazard issues is still a core piece of what we do today. We’re a testing, inspecting and certification firm. A lot of people don’t know us because we’re building the code. If you turn your laptop upside down, you will probably see our logo.

About 15 years ago the organization started to think, "What is this thing called safety?" The whole concept of safety had evolved. Customer and client research has shown that UL should look at safety from many angles, including supply chains, labor issues and data integrity.

The environmental angle came from the understanding that sustainability is a safety issue that is bigger than a toaster catching fire. We are talking about the safety of our planet for future generations. We also realized the need for science-based sustainability standards and eco-labels.

Bard MBA: Who are the clients for these new environmental offerings and what pressures lead them to seek out UL Environment services?

Sheehy: Organizations seeking support and assistance on sustainability issues often are the same companies we work with on the safety side. So we work with HP, Apple and Walmart and their peers.

So what drives them? It’s mainly just what drives a company to look at sustainability. Some of the drivers are regulatory. But eco-labels, for instance, are often voluntary standards that exist within a marketplace of green-buildings and design. Our clients need some form of certification to participate in those markets and make sustainability claims in the built environment. We are seeing growing concerns about specific issues like chemicals of concern and human health. Products that can contribute to issues, like air quality, are seeking ways to differentiate themselves from other products.

Increasingly there are more B2B drivers: procurement requirements around sustainability are starting to emerge as key issues. Walmart would be the most common example because their vendor requirements really drive action.

Bard MBA: There are so many environmental claims on the market, of varying legitimacy. UL is offering a far more rigorous approach for your clients. What is the conversation like with a big brand about a UL engagement on claims, standards and sustainability?

Sheehy: A conversation around eco-labels is often around marketing tools: They are great ways to short-cut thinking about very complex sustainability issues. Sometimes the conversation is around risk. A product might claim that it’s "green," but any uncertainty about that claim can undermine the whole market. Companies want to avoid those situations.

I’ll give you an example: biodegradability is a huge area of concern and focus for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. They have lodged lawsuits against companies for making biodegradability claims that may not be accurate. Biodegradability requires certain conditions for a product to biodegrade. If a product is not conceivably disposed of to meet those conditions, then it’s not a valid claim. Companies appreciate the rigorous approach UL applies once they are aware of those risks.

We also know that the right answer may not be so obvious. Basic assumptions we all make about sustainability don’t always pass muster. UL can help brands navigate those questions. For example, life cycle assessments are great tools that can shed light on the complexity of issues in the market place. Overall, developing more sustainability competency and awareness in brands and for end-use consumers will help more effectively create sustainable global change that we need. 

Bard MBA: UL Environment offers services and guidance on Design for Sustainability. Where in the process would clients approach you for assistance: at the beginning of the design process or afterwards to verify that claims are accurate?

Sheehy: The conversation with clients can begin at different points in that process. The length of an engagement in our certification practice can vary quite considerably, and depends on the customer having their house in order with the evidence we need to certify an environmental claim.

Ingersoll Rand is ahead of the pack, having created a formalized component in the product development process that brings this thinking to bear at the ideation stage. We find that companies will be much better positioned to receive an eco-label if that thinking comes up before any product mock-ups.

If a brand starts from the beginning with the aim to build a sustainable product, the information we need is collected throughout the process. It becomes much easier to justify a claim, and the brand is more likely to discover efficiencies throughout the design the process. It’s good business all around.