Heather Mak

Principal advisor at Heather Mak Consulting & the co-founder of the member network, Diversity in Sustainability

Heather has almost 15 years of experience in the private and non-profit sectors on food, retail and consumer goods sustainability issues in North America and Europe.  Her key areas of specialty include strategy and integration, stakeholder engagement, trends analysis, project management, and reporting and communications on responsible sourcing topics such as social compliance programs, human rights in emerging economies, labelling and certification programs, and animal welfare. More recently, she has turned her attention to building equity in the field of sustainability through a new organization called Diversity in Sustainability. Diversity in Sustainability’s mission is to equip current and future Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)/BAME sustainability leaders with the skills, networks and resources to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and just future.

Work and impact

Sustainability is basically what I’m focused on all day, whether it’s through my consulting work or through Diversity in Sustainability. My consultancy is Heather Mak Consulting, I am an independent consultant, so I typically work with retailers and consumer goods companies on different sustainability issues, whether it’s creating sustainability strategies or communications, reporting, engaging with different stakeholders. I also run Diversity in Sustainability, which is a non-profit, and we’re committed to building community for BIPOC sustainability practitioners to provide them with the tools and networks and resources to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and just future. I truly believe that a lot of the tools are available for us to fight climate change and be more sustainable, but where the action really needs to happen is getting people moving in tandem to effect the change we need.

I spoke about my past and current focus in the last question. I’m very focused on Diversity in Sustainability, with the intent of building inclusion and equity into everything we do in the field of sustainability so we have better outcomes, and helping people with the knowledge and tools to make changes in their organizations. 

I’ve always been very community-minded, from a young age. I have always enjoyed volunteering and helping others. I’ve always been interested in the environment as well. I remember doing different projects as a kid, on acid rain, on deforestation in the Amazon, on the Exxon Valdez spill. When I was in undergrad at McGill studying business in the early 2000s, there was a club focused on corporate responsibility or sustainability, but it was really fringe at the time. For jobs post-graduation, the job options seemed to be that either you join a bank or an activist organization, and there was no way to blend business and sustainability. LinkedIn wasn’t so big yet, either, so it wasn’t easy to find people to speak with. I turned to another field I was interested in – marketing. 

I spent my summers working at consumer goods companies, and they were great experiences to build up my skills in business fundamentals. During those summers, I also remember spending my time talking to people about packaging or sustainable consumption.  I continued doing that when I graduated. I worked for a candy company, and it was at that time that Walmart made its commitments to 100% renewable energy and zero waste. It was at that point where I saw the tide turning, and I saw the potential of combining business and sustainability. At that point, I decided I would go back to school to do a Master’s program. I went to the Schulich School of Business for 8 months and did an independent study while I was there on the feasibility of carbon labelling in Canada with Dr. Andrew Crane. It was a topic I was really interested in, and it was also a great way for me to interview a lot of people and companies that I was really interested in pursuing a career with after. I think the other really good piece of doing my MBA, was that aspect of meeting people. To this day, so many of my friends and classmates from the program are in the field of sustainability and it’s nice to see those familiar faces! 

When I graduated, I speculatively applied to Canadian Business for Social Responsibility and at the time the organization was a non-profit membership network, but they also did consulting. At the time, they were looking for someone that had a background in consumer goods, and it just fit perfectly. It was also an exciting time to be in the space! My manager at the time had just started there, and she had come from BCG, and she quickly taught me the tools of the trade in consulting. I was there for two and a half years, and then I’d always wanted to live abroad, so I moved to London and I managed to get a job at SustainAbility. It was great being able to work with companies in the U.K., but also in Europe and Africa as well. 

Ultimately, I missed home and moved back to Toronto again, and I got a job as a lobbyist on sustainability issues at the Retail Council of Canada. That was also a fascinating job, as it gave me an appreciation for how policymaking works, the election process, and the nuances behind human rights issues, animal welfare issues, recycling programs, etc…. It was great being able to have the weight of the retail industry to make substantive changes and positive impacts on some of these issues, too.

I was later recruited away by one of my former clients at Tim Hortons, and was there for 7 months, before I was laid off as part of an acquisition. After I was laid off, I took a bit of time off to do some soul searching and freelancing, and then joined the sustainability team at Deloitte. I was there for several years, and in 2018, I decided to hang up my own shingle. 

Then in 2020, Marie, Michael, and I started Diversity in Sustainability. We started it after the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Concurrently, I had been thinking through issues of inequality, and what’s happening in the world of sustainability, and who’s working in sustainability. Me and my co-founders have traditionally been the only people of colour in organizations that we’ve worked at. We thought of it from the perspective of, how do we open doors for people following in our wake? How do we get more diverse voices at senior levels? How do we make it a more equitable space since we’re all involved in creating the solutions of the future? Over the past year and a half we’ve been focused on building this organization – putting together an advisory panel, hiring interns, building up our membership platform, our Google group, and our survey that we released last year, which was a huge undertaking. This year we’re really focused on our Inclusion Blueprint Dialogues. We’re taking the information from the survey and having separate discussions with different groups, and then at the end of it coming up with a pledge that everyone can take so that we all play a part in making the sector more inclusive.

For me, it’s been exciting to see organizations reflect on their business model and their history a bit more. When I look at some of the major conservation NGOs, I think they’ve been taking a hard look at the makeup of their staff, and the impact of their operating models on the world and taking tangible action to change. 

I think the involvement of the finance sector in sustainability has been interesting – seeing the partnerships between NGOs and investors and how much it has amplified the advancement in issues like climate change. However, we also have to remember that finance cannot dominate the discussion because they are not experts in sustainability and we have to be mindful of why certain parties are at the table. 

I think the other thing that has excited me – which has come with working on Diversity in Sustainability – is hearing new voices in the sustainability space. We need as much brainpower as we can get on sustainability issues, so hearing from others beyond the “typical” folks, has been very exciting. Another important thing that excites me is tapping into ancestral knowledge to solve sustainability problems. Whether reading about Chinese, Celtic or Indigenous traditions, it is intriguing to see the commonalities in approach.

This isn’t a misconception necessarily. But I think there has been an awakening on greenwashing. We can no longer say we’re making the world more sustainable without actually doing so – or it’s just going to get worse. I think it starts with a big mindset shift, moving away from the earth as just a place for resources for human consumption. In 2021, I had a discussion with the late Elder Dave Courchene, he was an Anishinaabe elder who founded the Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. What he told me was that we need to have a discussion with nature itself and think about nature in our decisions. More recently, in the business world there’s been this focus on valuing and pricing nature’s services, but what he said was to see nature as our kin: imagining nature as our mother, or our sister. We need to unpack that further – for example, instead of thinking of things such as “how much pollution is acceptable as discharge in the local river?” it’s thinking of it in terms of “would I give this polluted water to a family member to drink?” It’s a huge shift that needs to take place, and our actions will follow.

Life and aspirations

You’d probably see that I’m a typical office worker. Lots of documents, spreadsheets, presentations and Zoom calls. I spend a good chunk of the day working on different client projects or building relationships with different stakeholders for Diversity in Sustainability, trying to meet new people and understanding their goals and objectives and how ours might overlap. 

Work-life balance is definitely a challenge, especially since starting a non-profit on top of a full-time job during the pandemic! We really want to get DiS into a good place, so that it can sustain itself with its own staff, and then I can feel a bit more comfortable stepping back. 

I am committed to getting to a better work-life balance. Humans aren’t machines – and rest is important!

Most of my non-profit work with Diversity in Sustainability is very challenging. I’ve been a sustainability consultant for a long time, so it’s been interesting to work real-time on governance issues, legal issues, accounting and hiring for DiS – a full swath of operational functions that comes with it. 

It’s also been an interesting challenge finding funding. I’ve been accustomed to working in the private sector where it’s fairly straightforward – you provide a service and you’re paid for services rendered. For a non-profit, there’s much more of a principles-based, or “heart” appeal that you have to think about. People are providing funding for a concept which might not directly benefit them, so there’s a bit of persuasion that certainly has to go on, and a track record that you have to prove yourself with. And so that to me is a steep learning curve, but I love learning and I enjoy it.

I’ll continue consulting for the foreseeable future. I love consulting and working with clients. I want to get more into the organizational change side of things. Still working in in the realm of sustainability, but thinking about behavior change to make more equitable and inclusive organizations. Of course, my main focus along with my co-founders will be to continue building Diversity in Sustainability until it’s a self-sustaining organization.

Advice for the next generations

To me, I think listening skills are super important. People don’t often talk about that in business school – but it is a fundamental skill to help in problem solving and bring people together, and it helps you to become more persuasive too, as you then come from a place of understanding.  

I think another important skill as you’re starting out your career is research and analysis skills. Those are essential, especially since sustainability is such an emergent field and there’s always something changing all the time, so being able to get to the bottom of things to understand them to make recommendations out of them.

Particularly in consulting, I would say other things would probably be communication skills. I think that’s tied to the first two, but really just being able to get that information across in a digestible way to the people that you’re hoping to influence, I think that’s really important. Whether it’s in the written word or the spoken word or any other medium.

All the things I mentioned before are all soft skills and I don’t think it requires a degree in any way, and it’s something that we found in our research, that there’s this arms race happening of qualifications needed to get into sustainability. But when I look at what I do day to day, do I need that master’s degree? Probably not. It was good to meet people in the sector, but I don’t think it was truly needed. 

I think it also depends on the field of sustainability that you’re in. I’ve had some colleagues that work on climate change plans or science-based targets, and for those types of roles, for sure, I think it’s helpful to have an engineering degree. For some of the really technical, STEM related topics, such as  hydrogeological science or modeling for adaptation, then certainly I think a degree is needed. But when you do things like advocacy, or what I do in business, you can learn on the job. There’s some fundamental stuff that I learned in business school, like reading an annual report, but I do think because it’s so emergent, I think you really just need a keenness to learn and just that ability to be a self starter.

It’s really good to be resourceful and have good research skills. I value when people want to learn more about something or they want to get to the bottom of something or they make connections between things.

I also really value people who are self starters. They have a sense of initiative to get things done. They take it on, they ask questions when they need to, but I think people that can really just jump into things. I’m fine when people make mistakes, that’s all part of the learning process. People that just jump right into things and are excited to get their feet wet, get their hands dirty, that’s a really important characteristic to have.

For me, I wouldn’t have changed anything because it led me to where I am today. I don’t think there is really a mistake that you can make in the career that you get into and there is always a way to tie any industry with sustainability. Whether you’re in accounting, or finance, or operations, or engineering, there is definitely a linkage to sustainability. My advice to younger people is that you may not start off in sustainability, but the foundation that you build will help in many ways that you might not even realize now. Even when I was starting off in sustainability, I was hired because they really liked how I had a grounding in consumer goods sales and marketing, so it was a skill set that could be combined in a way that was helpful to the organization and I could speak the language of clients better because I had that understanding. It might feel frustrating at the time, but as long as you have your north star and you’re pointed in that direction, you’ll get there.