Employer Interview with The Soil Association

As part of our ‘Work for UN Sustainable Goals’ series, we caught up with Soil Association’s Head of Human Resources, Katie Dominy, to talk about the organisation, what they do, and why the UN Sustainable Development Goals are so important to their mission. We learn a bit more about the qualities Soil Association look for in candidates, along with advice for future career changers and entry-level jobseekers. 

EJ: Would you mind first describing exactly what your organization does and its main purpose? 

KD: The Soil Association is the charity that digs deeper to transform the way we eat, farm and care for our natural world. We want to live in a world which is in balance with nature and a future with good health and a safe climate.

In order to achieve that, it is our mission to help everyone understand and explore the vital relationship between the health of soil, plants, animals, and people. We campaign, educate, and help everyone to grow better together. 

EJ: So focussing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where would you say Soil Association has the most impact? 

KD:  I would say our organization has the most impact on Responsible Consumption and Production – Goal 12, and Climate Action – Goal 13. 

In terms of Responsible Consumption and Production, it’s an area that for us, is a passion! How we produce and consume food and forests is having a huge impact on every aspect of our lives and the planet. From rising obesity, to being a major driver of the climate and wildlife crises, it can feel overwhelming. But the solutions are out there! The key is take a holistic approach and to work with nature. So that's what we do.

It means our work is diverse. This list is not comprehensive, but it includes campaigning for policy change, supporting farmer led innovation, serving healthy food in schools and hospitals, developing, and promoting world leading standards including the world's first organic, and protecting forests globally through our forestry certification.

Climate Action is another goal that is tightly interwoven into our work. It is estimated that as much as one third of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from food and farming, largely through intensive livestock production and the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. This intensive production is also damaging our ability to withstand more frequent extreme weather, as our damaged soils experience faster droughts or exacerbate floods.

To tackle these problems, it comes back to being holistic; we have to also think about our wildlife and health crisis and deliver a joint solution. One we know is possible! For example, research shows that if all of Europe’s farmland followed organic principles, agricultural emissions across the continent could drop by 40 - 50% by 2050, while also feeding a growing population a healthy diet and regenerating biodiversity. This system-wide shift needs to happen in the next 10 years to have the most impact. 

Its why our strategy is focussed on getting support for, and helping to deliver, a transition to agroecology, regenerative forestry and sustainable and healthy diets, by 2030.

EJ: So both of these goals really drive the work that you do at Soil Association, that’s great! Focussing on that 2030 Agenda, in your opinion what progress has been since 2015 and what actions still need to be taken in terms of Responsible Consumption and Production and Climate Action? 

KD: Looking at Goal 12, it is no longer a side-line issue, so it is an exciting time. The dots are starting to connect, for example between our unsustainable agricultural system and our unhealthy diets. Concepts like regenerative agriculture and agroecology, circular economy and the need for more plant-based foods have gained traction. The organic market has also continued to grow.

But we need change to accelerate. We all need to be able to consume and waste ‘less, but better’, for us and the planet. So a key area of action is to tackle the barriers that prevent sustainable, healthy food from being an easy, accessible choice for all. This means Governments need to lead the way through public procurement and farmers need to be given fairer deals in exchange for practice changes.

In terms of Climate Action, Agriculture hasn't seen much progress. But there has been rising awareness around the role of soil health and the need to shift towards less livestock and animal products. This is a nuanced picture however, about not just less, but a shift towards animals reared in agroecological systems – and not just plant-based foods, but also less ultra-processed.

Commitments to protect forests globally have been made at COP26 but it remains to be seen if they will be kept. A big concern is that net-zero strategies make unrealistic assumptions around offsetting and offshored impacts. So there is a lot of action still needed. 

Urgent action for the UK includes reducing artificial nitrogen, ending soya imports for animal feed and the rise in intensive poultry, increasing organic and other agroecological systems and making their products affordable for all, and reducing our offshored footprint in unsustainable forest products.

EJ: Thank you for your sharing your knowledge on these issues. For those interested in an impact career, who want to get involved with Soil Association’s mission, can you tell us what kind of specialist areas and roles you recruit for? 

KD: Some of the roles we have recruited, or will look to recruit include but are not limited to: 

- Farming Adviser
- Head of Farm Links
- Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry
- Director of Standards
- Nutrition and Food Quality Trainer
- Associate Director Sustainable Food Cities
- Food Community Managers
- Sustainable Catering Project Manager
- Scientific Adviser

EJ: As one of our first client supporters I’m sure you know that Ethical Jobseeker aim to break the myth that purposeful companies only recruit talent with specialist knowledge. Can you tell us about the operational or business support requirements you have?

KD: These cover a wide range of important divisions within Soil Association, and include: 

- Certificate of Inspection Administrators
- Forestry Administrators
- Certification Officers or Managers
- Communication Officers
- Fundraising Officers
- Programme Officers or Managers

EJ: Perfect! So, what qualities and attributes are you most looking for in candidates that apply for these roles? 

KD:  The main competencies we look for in candidates are strong communication, relationship building, and influencing skills, confident and competent IT skills, and problem-solving skills. We look for people with innovative and creative thinking, who are self-motivated and have a connection or empathy with the aims and objectives of the Soil Association. 

EJ: On this note, do you have any best advice for career entrants looking to apply to one of your roles? 

KD: Read the job profile and make clear connections in your question responses to your practical or theoretical experience or knowledge to help us assess your suitability or future potential to develop in the role. We can find that the passion for the work of the organisation and the personal connection overshadows the professional contribution someone would bring to the role – even if early in their career.

EJ: Sound Advice. Any for potential career changers thinking about working with you?

KD: At the earliest opportunity give the context for why you are intentionally changing your career and what transferable connections you have made in your experience, knowledge or personal/ professional qualities which fit the role you are applying for. Draw this out in each answer stating if you see a development need but how you will proactively respond to this (and perhaps how you have achieved development success in other roles). 

EJ: Most importantly, why should candidates want to work at Soil Association? Tell us a bit more about your culture at work – what is good and what are you working on at the moment? 

KD: We have a passionate, engaging, and vocal bunch of people in our organisation who care about the future state of our world and believe that every contribution or change we make today and onwards really matters. Whether that is from a small interest in shopping locally, recycling food waste, saving the bees, to growing their own fruit and vegetables or volunteering in activities like community farms, to organising or attending events like beach cleans, and of course those who fully live and breathe an environmental and sustainable lifestyle… all are welcome and hopefully nurtured!

We are working on ensuring that the perceived niches of our organisation (environmental charity, organic, farming) do not create barriers for people to join our organisation, nor when here, feel that they cannot bring their whole selves to work. We work with communities and talk to, and with, diverse audiences and stakeholders across a complex system of work and so we need those voices and lived experiences within our staff base to make our shared impact more powerful and meaningful.

EJ: For any potential candidates wanting to learn more about the work that you do and the issues that we have discussed today, do you have any helpful resources where they can improve their understanding? 

KD: Broadly speaking, a good focus is to try to get that bigger picture understanding of how different issues interweave. So our policy reports are worth a look. Our 'Ultra-Processed Planet' report is great as it connects up the problems in our diets with the wider food system, including intensive agriculture. Beyond that, it really depends on the role as we cover so much, but again, checking out our website is a great starting point for further links.

EJ: Thanks for that. Finally, tell us a bit more about what the Soil Association is focussing on for 2022. Is there anything exciting coming up that you would like us to shout out? 

KD: We continue to build on people strategy of attraction, retention and development, while more broadly thinking about our future workforce and the knowledge and skills which will be required to deliver our purpose. This incorporates a review of our leadership model and the values and behaviours we demonstrate into, and out of, the organisation.

Future ways of working is key - how do we build, engage and motivate a more remote or hybrid working employee group that is responsive and present in the communities they serve? Able to influence and support our members, customers and stakeholders in meaningful, sustainable change? In all this, how can we bring to life our culture to achieve that sense of belonging for all.

We do have an exciting development in our ED&I work, in appointing an ED&I Senior Advisor into the organisation to connect our strategic ambition as a Charity into our internal ways of working, creating programmes, reaching audiences and creating new platforms for others. We will build on our goals around recruitment and inclusive workplace, for example we will continue our lunch and learn talks with external speakers who help raise awareness of others experiences and how we, not only as citizens of the world, but as employees of the Soil Association, understand the impact of our own behaviours and the role we play in improving the world around us.

* Research and Further Reading provided by Louise Payton, Policy Officer (Farming & Land Use) 

Soil Association are hiring now across a wide range of roles. To discover open applications or to find out more click here. 

To read more on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and their impact, click here.