To counteract the narrative that industry leaders are not doing enough to reduce emissions or disclose climate impacts, companies have entered an age of heightened corporate social responsibility (CSR) — a strategy that businesses use to publicly demonstrate their commitment to the well-being of the environment and society.

Leah Levenson headshot

While interning at the National Football League Foundation, learning about CSR was a daily management practice for Leah Levenson ’24, the inaugural 2022-23 NFL Foundation College Fellow.

“I learned so much about the corporate responsibility field and how large businesses [like the NFL] can really benefit their communities through CSR initiatives,” said Levenson, who is an economics and anthropology double major on the political ecology track.

Levenson came to Barnard hoping to intersect her academic interest in business with her passion for the environment. The College’s political ecology track offered just that: “I liked how political ecology revolved around the idea of sustainability but is also incredibly applicable to my studies in economics,” she said.

Over the summer, Levenson interned at HSBC Bank and currently volunteers with Tree-Plenish — a student-run nonprofit organization that works with high schools across the nation to offset their energy usage by planting trees locally. At both places, Levenson has applied what she’s learned at Barnard about anthropogenic climate change to the CSR practices of corporate eco-efficiency, social investment, and consumer relations.

In this “5 Questions With…” interview, Levenson explains how she leverages climate-action solutions as she writes her senior thesis and builds a future career rooted in the power of individual choice.

Leah Levenson '24 hike
Levenson connects with nature at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

What inspired you to focus your thesis on CSR and environmentalism? 

When I worked as the NFL Foundation’s College Fellow in midtown Manhattan, I saw firsthand the kinds of efforts that corporations and industries make to benefit their communities. I worked on initiatives like “My Cause My Cleats,” through which players wore custom-designed cleats in honor of causes and organizations that were important to them. After the players wore the cleats in week 11 of the 2022 season, many chose to auction [them] off through the NFL’s auction system, [which] directed all the proceeds back to the organizations of their choice.

This got me thinking about the topic of my thesis. I thought a lot about the everyday choices that individuals make to combat climate change. I regularly see that there is a large push for individuals to make a difference with their choices by using less plastic or to thrift shop, but I also wondered about the effectiveness of these actions. This inspired me to learn more about the individual action on climate change as something that underlies the actions of corporations and governments — as well as the history and effectiveness of CSR efforts.

What are some ways that corporate responsibility intersects with climate-related issues and sustainability?

Every business has a different model for how they employ CSR efforts, whether through outlined initiatives and organizations or simply introducing environmental and social policies to their business practices. When it comes to climate-related issues, CSR initiatives include achieving net-zero efforts, where companies create a plan to cut carbon emissions to as close to zero as possible or to balance out ongoing emissions with removal efforts. Other forms of climate-related CSR efforts include environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing, partnerships with sustainable projects, and promoting environmentalism education among customers and, as a result, throughout the greater industry.

How has Barnard’s political ecology track expanded your knowledge of CSR?

Being a student on the political ecology track has given me an entirely new perspective through which I can view my studies and the topic of corporate responsibility. Since I’m looking at my thesis topic through an anthropological view, I’m able to analyze my research in a much more nuanced way.

In my literature review, I’ve looked at how CSR efforts “humanize” corporations by reconstructing social relations and how anthropological concepts, such as reciprocity and gifting, emerge in the CSR ideas of community involvement and social investment. A lot of the success in corporate responsibility can be understood through an anthropological lens.

Through the political ecology track, I have the opportunity to take almost all of the same requirements as the general anthropology major, and this has provided me with substantive background knowledge on the subject. It’s also become incredibly useful and applicable to my other classes and areas of study, such as economics.

How has the College’s commitment to climate action shaped your own environmentalism?

I believe Barnard is full of leaders and people who can really make a difference in our world. This has inspired me to get more involved in my own environmental activism. As a student attending Barnard College and eventually graduating into a changed world — one where climate change has grown to be a large focus — I see environmental practices becoming critical in our futures. It’s really great to attend an institution that is committed to climate action. I was a member of the SGA Sustainability Committee during my first two years at Barnard, [where I witnessed] the efforts that both students and administrators were introducing to the College to aid in sustainability efforts.

Outside of Barnard, I’ve been involved in the sustainable nonprofit organization Tree-Plenish, [working] on the partnerships and strategy teams with college students from around the country. It was great to see the actual effect of our work and the power of leveraging students to take action.

I’ve also been inspired to think about sustainability in my own career post-college. For example, this summer, I interned at HSBC Bank. The sustainability practices of HSBC really distinguished the company in my job search, and I’m excited to be working at a corporation that takes CSR efforts seriously.

What does being an environmental activist at Barnard mean to you?

Barnard students have the special opportunity to understand the implications of environmental practices across disciplines. This can empower any Barnard student to better understand climate change within and outside of their areas of study. For students interested in this interdisciplinary study of climate change, I would strongly recommend Paige West’s class Anthropology of Climate Change. We learned about intersectionality in climate activism, and I think this concept really captures the ethos of climate activism among Barnard students.