Alumni Profile: Michael Sheridan *02

Michael Sheridan
Posted on October 8, 2015

Class year:  GS 2002/WWS 2002

Major: MPA/International Development

Professional role and organization: Director, Catholic Relief Services Coffee Program

How do you define sustainability?  

With difficulty.

The good news is that the concept of sustainability has made its way into the slipstream of conversations in virtually every sector of the economy and there are more sustainability initiatives underway than you can count.  The bad news is that everyone seems to define it differently, not all definitions are created equal and it is still hard for consumers and investors interested in the topic to differentiate between best-in-class sustainability work and those efforts that may be effective at helping secure profits while making negligible contributions to people or the planet.  So in the end, it doesn’t much matter how I might define sustainability, because my definition may not be relevant outside the projects I affect within my organization.

It is also important to note that collectively we have a problem in sustainability that may be more important than the lack of a common definition: we are still measuring process more than impact.  For so many voluntary sustainability standards and corporate codes of conduct, sustainability is defined when enough process boxes have been checked, not necessarily when people and ecosystems are more resilient.  Our proxy indicators are logical but don’t necessarily give us a good idea how we are doing by the people and landscapes involved in our supply chains.  As a result, in agriculture we often apply the term “sustainable” to practices that degrade the environment and products that come from farmers who are still poor and hungry. 

There are organizations like the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) and the Sustainable Commodity Assistance Network (SCAN) that are now pushing for more standardization so that we can begin to develop large data sets that compare like to like and permit meta-analysis, more democratization so that participants in supply chain sustainability efforts have more a voice in defining what success looks like, and more focus on outcomes and impacts so we can more accurately assess what works for people and the planet.  This work is important, but difficult and still relatively new.

How does your work relate to sustainability and how did Princeton prepare you for your role?                                                           

As a first-year MPA student at the Woodrow Wilson School, I wrote a policy memo each week for a semester.  At first, the exercise was challenging and fun.  As the novelty wore off, it became a bit more laborious.  By the end of the semester, it was downright tedious.  But the result was that some of the things I draw on every day in my current work became second-nature to me: helping influential and busy people make good decisions on weighty issues under acute time constraints; writing clearly and succinctly about complex issues; and embedding recommendations informed by results-based evidence in a nuance analysis of the political or corporate contexts in which decisions are made. 

More recently I have found myself drawing on econometric principles I learned at Princeton to support effective research design in the field.  My organization has historically focused overwhelmingly on project implementation.  But we have come to understand that change at any meaningful scale won’t come from doing more or bigger projects—it will come through influence over public policy and private-sector practices that are informed by better measurement of the work we do in the field.  As part of this pivot toward a more influence-oriented approach, we have begun to invest in things we haven’t done before, like random sampling in our field surveys, collecting data from counterfactual groups to improve attribution of observed outcomes to specific interventions, and other applied innovations in partnership with research institutes in the United States and overseas.  As we did that, I found the ability to be conversant in research design and multivariate regression analysis to be very important.

Finally, I took a short course on negotiation out of curiosity more than any abiding intellectual interest in the topic but find myself drawing on its principles often in my cross-sector engagement with the coffee industry and policymakers in coffee-growing countries.

What advice would you offer to students seeking to focus on or incorporate sustainability in their careers?

Find common cause with the people and institutions whose policies and practices you wish to influence.  The incentive structure for elected officials and private-sector decision-makers doesn’t often align with that of researchers or sustainability advocates.  Public officials may operate on the basis of motivations that are pretty opaque—favors owed, constituencies to appease, favorable optics, etc.  Corporate leaders may have more transparent motivations related to financial returns and shareholder value, especially those in publicly traded companies, but they can’t pursue sustainability for its own sake.  They need to align their decisions on sustainability issues with bottom-line concerns.  And in both the public and private sectors, time horizons tend to be much shorter than we would like in the sustainability community—electoral cycles and quarterly reports weigh heavily on their decision-making while we may be thinking more about the kinds of social and environmental processes that are better measured in decades or even generations.  I have found that bridging the gap between what we believe on the basis of principle or evidence to be the “right” thing to do and what may be possible for our public and private-sector allies given their current constraints has been essential to getting traction on the issues I care about.  That has required a significant investment of time in really understanding the institutional interests they are advancing as well as the personal interests of the individuals I have been engaged with.  This is not a recipe for revolution—the changes that have come about through this approach have been decidedly incremental—but it has been reliable.