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A holistic approach to a global problem

13 December 2018 – Andrew Phillips MA FCA, Rural Director of Finance for the Duchy of Cornwall, reflects on his time spent studying with CISL, and the impact of attaining both a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business (PCSB) and the Master of Studies (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership on his personal outlook and professional career.

Although the term wasn’t in use at the time, the concept of what’s now known as ‘sustainability’ has always interested me.  When I was studying economics at school, a teacher gave me ‘Small is Beautiful’ by E. F. Schumacher, which argued that the economy of the seventies was unsustainable and set out a range of solutions. It really resonated with me at the time. At university, my thesis then focussed upon the politics of the dispossessed.

I have been a chartered accountant for the past twenty years, and now work for the Duchy of Cornwall. I am responsible for the financial management of the Duchy’s rural estate, which includes farms, workshops and residential property.

I was involved with the initial assessment of the Duchy’s carbon footprint and to broaden my knowledge, in 2014 I decided to undertake a course that would expose me to the problems and to get to grips with the solutions available, so the 10-month Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business seemed a perfect fit.  

Sheer Quality

Because of its reputation, CISL is able to attract the best speakers from around the world. Many members of my cohort were also attracted to the course because of the sheer quality of what is offered. There can be a danger that by doing this type of course, you’re inside a sustainability bubble, disconnected from the real world. But the international, outward-looking, focus provided an additional dimension to the programme. Knitting the subject matter together with an emphasis on providing leadership skills proved a powerful combination.

After completing the PCSB, I still had a hunger to learn so went on to do the Master of Studes (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership. I really enjoyed studying for this because it gave me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and understanding and pursue a lengthy research dissertation. The consistent calibre of teaching, first-class tutors and international speakers meant this certainly didn’t disappoint.

On reflection, getting to know the cohorts was probably the most valuable element I took from both courses. There were people of every age and from such a range of sectors, backgrounds and countries. This enriched the programme and gave an international flavour and breadth of insight, which was something that I just wasn’t exposed to within my normal working environment. Despite these differences, there was a common understanding and desire to learn that was hugely stimulating and motivating.

Over the two-year Master’s course I was in Cambridge for four week-long workshops where I was working with and talking to members of my cohort from breakfast time until late into the evening. The support we gave each other was invaluable and since the course ended I have still been able to turn to them for advice.

Navigating the peaks and troughs

I can’t pretend there weren’t pressures.  There wasn’t anyone back in the office doing my job so my day-to-day work was a challenge. That said, I was acutely aware that I was in such a privileged position, and approached it all with an open mind.  Managing my time was tricky but it was definitely worth it. I planned my academic studies strategically around the peaks and troughs of work commitments.

Professionally, the courses definitely gave me the credibility and skills to communicate and be a leader on sustainability issues within my working environment. I also felt I had earned the right to talk about them. On a personal level, I became more reflective and considered in the way I approached issues. I used to be quite a linear ‘chartered accountant’ who liked regulations and rules. After my CISL exposure, I looked at things with a much more systems-based approach: the linear approach to sustainability simply doesn’t work.

In my first year at CISL, I explored issues surrounding natural capital and was able to utilise my experiences at work, as part of a team, on a large, natural capital resources project looking at the management of our farms and 130,000 acres of land. This is a very timely and pertinent exercise for our tenants and will lead to a number of positive outcomes. We’re moving beyond focussing on operational emissions such as travel and water use, for which you could create KPIs and get quick wins, by diving into the truly material issues around what is actually happening on the land.

Impact upon the sector

During my Master’s, I examined the response of the UK agricultural sector to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and, again, in a very practical way it helped in the development of the Duchy of Cornwall’s modern slavery policy. An additional outcome resulted in my research being published by the UK Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab. The  paper is gaining traction in the sector and amongst practitioners and my hope is that it will have an impact on how the whole issue of modern slavery is addressed in the UK.  It was also recently referenced by the lead MP in a debate in Parliament.

That was hugely motivating for me as it added real value to my work and had a practical application rather than being something theoretical sitting on a shelf. Furthermore, it illustrated the strength of the course as something not just demonstrating knowledge on a particular topic but showing application in the field, leadership and hopefully leveraging change.

Talk their language

Regarding leadership, I believe to succeed in the sustainability sector you must approach the subject by taking into consideration other people’s point of view, by talking to them in their language and understanding their concerns. You can’t be a purist and just expect everyone to listen to what you’ve got to say. One must try and give others a range of options and help them become invested in the process.

A lot of people on the course weren’t sustainability specialists and I believe that was also a strength because if you can combine it with law, engineering or finance, for example, you will be able to speak to key stakeholders in a way they can understand, transcending departments and finding potential allies.

Challenges and opportunities

I believe that the two biggest challenges we have at the moment are firstly, being heard, because there is such a range of competing agendas and secondly the international economic situation.  

That said, the opportunities are there because of an increasing awareness of the seriousness of the situation we have found ourselves in, so I’d like to think that, in such times, sustainability leaders would eventually be listened to.

It is an exciting age we live in. I’m in my 50’s now and I do envy the people who are coming to this at the start of their career. They are the ones who will be able to affect change as sustainability becomes increasingly central to business. There will be some really interesting and impactful opportunities to come.


The Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business (PCSB) is designed to equip senior and mid-career professionals with the relevant skillsets to integrate sustainability into strategic business action. It is offered with two streams – one through a lens of organisations and the other approaches content from a value chains context (previously known as the PCSVC).

The part-time Master's in Sustainability Leadership is designed to develop leadership capacity to tackle critical sustainability challenges, with practical assignments and a research dissertation. The course is delivered over two years via a blend of online modules and four residential weeks in Cambridge

About the author

AndrewPhillips

Andrew Phillips MA FCA, has worked in corporate reporting for 25 years.  He trained in audit and corporate finance, then worked in retail and banking before moving to the agricultural sector to work for the Duchy of Cornwall, where he is Rural Director of Finance. 

Andrew leads on the Duchy’s work on sustainability, including Integrated Reporting, natural capital accounting, renewable energy and modern slavery. He took the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business (PCSB) in 2015 then went on to complete The Master of Studies (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership 2016-18. 

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.