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Cheesemonger to changemaker: Why I needed to change the way I worked

exceptional™'s director of client success Anna Corbett explains why she wanted to change the way she worked to prioritise people and the planet, and how others might do the same.

I grew up in Germany’s Black Forest. Sounds spooky – the sort of place children get tricked by witches or somehow struggle to tell the difference between their grandmother and a wolf in a nightgown. I loved it. 

My childhood home was secluded, in a field hidden deep within the woods. We couldn’t see our nearest neighbour. Throw open a window in summer, and the only noises you’d hear were the crickets and birds. A passing car was cause for curiosity. 

In the winter, silence. Any sounds from the forest would be buried under fresh snow – snow my brother also buried me in once as a child, but that’s a trauma for another story. 

The spring and winter views from my childhood home. Buried child not included.

I spent almost all of those years outside. There’s no intellectualising it – there’s just something about immersing yourself in nature that makes it impossible not to feel connected to the world outside yourself. That world isn’t just there for your pleasure. It will exist after you are gone. These are things we all know, but rarely get to feel.

Everyone knows that protecting the planet isn’t going to be easy, but we rarely feel like it. Often, it takes feeling to act. 

We know we won’t make the changes our planet needs by sitting indoors glued to the news, or only making barely noticeable every-day adjustments to feel better about ourselves. 

There’s an almost unmatched dissonance when it comes to the climate crisis. That ginormous gap between what we know and what we feel rears its head again. 

We know that, without action, our society is on the brink of doing catastrophic, irreversible damage to the planet. We often feel, however, like that sort of catastrophic change could never really happen – unless we have direct, personal experience with the fragility of the natural world.

It’s always helped me to have a rock, memories of the nature I grew up in that can spur me to speak up and take action when it would have been easier to stay silent. 

It might sound cheesy, but remembering that forest is what helps bridge the gap between what I know needs to be done, and what I feel I can do. If cheesiness gets the job done – and that job certainly needs doing – then I’ll get as cheesy as it takes. I’m a fondue. I’m a cheesemonger.

Part of the problem with that cheesy nostalgia, of course, is that it’s all about feelings. You might do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better, while stopping short of actually having a meaningful impact. Ideally, you need to be able to find motivation in those cheesy feelings that help you make real change. Changing the way you work is the perfect place to start. 

When you’re trying to make your business more sustainable, however, there’s always the risk that the project becomes a box-ticking exercise. You end up buffing up your environmental bona fides without actually making the trickier decisions that will be necessary to protect the planet. You’ll do anything to positively affect the environment… that won’t affect your bottom line.

Protecting the planet contains a classic prisoner’s dilemma. 

In business there’s always the temptation to take whatever work you can get regardless of its impact on the planet. You hope that everyone else makes the right choice so that you don’t have to. 

We spend almost 20% of our waking hours at work – but it’s still sometimes seen as acceptable to write off that time as “just work” when it comes to our personal morals and impact. Someone’s gotta pay the bills. This is especially easy to tell yourself when you have a family.

I had my eldest daughter when I was 27. To be honest, I lost myself in being a mother for a long time. Other considerations fell completely off my radar.

Then, as my children began to grow up, I found my shrinking sense of self and lack of connection to a greater purpose sneaking up on me. I wanted to get back to my roots and make a difference. Everyone talks about wanting to leave a better world for their children – often, however, that means doing whatever it takes to secure their financial futures, all else be damned. 

I realised that having the impact I really wanted meant changing the way I worked. It wouldn’t be enough to recycle, to use low-impact products, to marginally reduce harm rather than positively affect change. I felt a real drive to do something more, and I had my childhood to thank.

That drive has made me a real pain in the arse. 

It’s meant encouraging our team to take the hard route, questioning prospective clients, turning down work, and long discussions about who we are and are not willing to market for. I’m lucky that, at work, we often see eye-to-eye – at least in our end goal – but it hasn’t always been easy. 

In digital marketing, making the right choices means being picky about who we work with. 

Even when times are tough, we need to be willing to turn down work for businesses that we don’t believe are having a positive impact on people and the planet. 

For a long time, I’ve wanted to direct my skills in digital marketing towards making a difference, helping businesses that are having a positive impact to succeed. 

That’s what exceptional™ allows all of our team to do. 

We’re working with people that are driving change in the world through their work. Sometimes they’re working in biotech to discover life-saving treatments, other times they’re technology and energy pioneers working to reduce our reliance on unsustainable resources. 

To me, exceptional™ is about helping the people making a positive change in the world to get whatever they need. 

They could need more investors, grant funding, donations, or customers. As long as we trust and believe in the work they’re doing, we can put all of our digital marketing skills to work knowing that, together, our work impacts a meaningful moral bottom line. 

I don’t believe that you can only prioritise the planet if you’ve grown up in the countryside. 

I draw a lot of motivation from my upbringing, but the last thing I want to do is suggest that only people with a strong emotional connection to nature can make a difference. In fact, if only those people took action, we’d be doomed. 

I do, however, think that it’s vital that we don’t separate our personal and professional lives to the extent that we write off our morals and hopes for the future the moment we log on in the morning. Making the changes we need to make across the business world means injecting a piece of the personal.  

Whatever spurs you to action – whatever helps you make those tougher business decisions that put people and the planet first – find it. It’s only human to need that personal connection to something to find the courage to take the leap.

Trust me. It will help you do better work, better.

Anna Corbett

Anna Corbett

Director of Client Success // Founding Partner

Anna is responsible for all client delivery, and is our resident data and analytics lead.