Tim Mohin MEM’84, director of corporate responsibility for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), thinks business and the environment can be harmonious pursuits. His decades-long-and-counting career is a case in point.

Before AMD, he spent 10 years in government shoring up air-quality protections, then he led sustainability efforts at Intel and Apple. Along the way, the corporate sustainability arena expanded its scope to the broader field of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

His forthcoming book, Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations (Berrett-Koehler Publishers and Greenleaf Press, due out August 2012), is a highly readable compendium of lessons learned and detailed steps about how to run today’s corporate responsibility (CR) office.

Dukenvironment sat down and talked with him about his book and his career.

Dukenvironment:
Before we dive into the book, where did you go after graduating from Duke?

Mohin:
My first job was with the Environmental Protection Agency. The interesting part of that was, during the Reagan administration there had been a real slowdown in regulatory activity and the focus was on the Air Quality Office. There was a shakeup within the agency and President Reagan brought in Bill Ruckelshaus for his second term as EPA administrator, and Ruckelshaus immediately was called before Congress and grilled on why hadn’t there been more air regulations—he promised there would be 20 new air toxics regulations by year’s end.

Putting that in context, there had been seven in the entire history of the Clean Air Act. And so they needed help—and fast. Duke publishes a resume book, my name was in it and had “Eco Tox” in the title. I got a call from EPA.

At EPA I got to work on the Clean Air Act amendments which were signed into law in 1990, and that gave me a lot of legislative experience, which led to the job in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where I worked on several different pieces of environmental legislation.

Dukenvironment:
How did you move into the private sector?

Mohin:
When the Senate majority flipped in the 1994 elections I started to search for a new role. Eventually, I was asked to stay on at the Senate, but by then I had found a great job at Intel.

Intel fit me like a glove because they really care about environmental protection; they just wanted to do it faster than the government allowed. It was an agenda I felt very comfortable representing.

Dukenvironment:
Faster than the government allowed or required?

Mohin:
Required. Basically it came down to this: Intel was more than capable of meeting or exceeding environmental standards—what they couldn’t stand was delay. Permitting, reviews and administrative red tape, when you’re building semiconductors in a highly competitive environment, just wasn’t working for them.

Dukenvironment:
Okay, now on to your book. It reads like a handbook, full of good advice for the CSR professional and beyond. What was the impetus for writing it?

Mohin:
You have to learn before you teach. And maybe this will sound a little sour grapes-like but there are a lot of sustainability and CSR books out there, and I’d say the vast majority are from people who haven’t actually worked in CSR. So the reality is different from what’s being published.

Being a board member of Net Impact, I know there’s a legion of young people who want to work in something bigger than themselves. But the reality of being an environmentalist inside a big company can be a steep learning curve.

Especially if they’re reading some of these more academic sustainability treatises, they might come away thinking, well, this is easy, and not get a full picture of what it’s really like. So the idea behind the book is, as you said, to be a handbook or a manual, with step-by-step instructions for practicing CR.

Dukenvironment:
Your book draws on a wealth of experience, but if you had to cite several key themes, what would they be?

Mohin:
Two things: capabilities and content. I talk about how to build the essential capabilities for corporate responsibility. What’s interesting is that these skills also have value for other careers. The second is content—the book lays out what you actually do in a step-by-step way. It starts with setting the strategy then gets into the programs and processes. One I would highlight, because it’s growing fast, is supplier responsibility. There are actually two chapters on that.

From my career in Apple it became very clear to me that, as business continues to outsource and globalize, the responsibility for labor, human rights, environmental health, safety, is falling to companies. And so it is the people in corporate responsibility jobs who must ensure that labor, health, safety and environmental expectations are met.

The exciting thing is that this change happens faster [in the corporate sphere than in government], and I think it’s more effective because it’s truly global. In government, there’s legislation, regulation, litigation and finally you get to some sort of action—but the only leverage is through enforcement which some companies may not view as a threat, and even then, it’s only within a certain jurisdiction. With companies it’s global and covers a broad range of issues—including environmental, health, safety, ethics, labor and human rights. Also things happen more quickly because suppliers will typically do what it takes to keep the business. Business can be far more effective as a motivator; as I say in the book, it comes down to “our dollars, our values.” In my experience working within a corporation, nothing moves people faster than economic reality.