Passion, Hands On Experience, and Optimism | Yue Cao

In this episode of Sustainability Ambassadors, we speak with Yue Cao.


When building up networks of sustainability leaders and innovators, it often takes the progressive action of a single individual to catalyze real change. These individuals are Sustainability Ambassadors, and they have the capacity and the drive to inspire change at any level of an organization – from the new talent to the visionary executive.


Yue Cao is a young passionate researcher, campaigner, and social innovator. Her interests lie in a range of multi-disciplinary sustainability contexts, whether it’s helping purposeful brands to tackle social or environmental problems, to campaigning at the international level pushing for legislation changes for endangered species, she loves them all.

She worked at Collective Responsibility as sustainability consultant from 2016 summer to 2017 spring. During that time, she worked closely with the research team to track and analyse Shanghai’s informal waste management system and most importantly, identifying the areas where that business and brands could find opportunity in. Please check out our most recent Informal Waste report for details.

Prior to this, Yue graduated from University College London with a Masters degree in Environment and Sustainable Development. She also holds a business degree from University of Liverpool.

Now, Yue woks as a campaigner at a London based NGO – Environmental Investigation Agency.

For more stories like Yue’s, and to learn how to foster similar leaders in your own company, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.

About Sustainability Ambassador Series

Sustainability Ambassadors is a video series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organization into action: to identify those with the potential to rise and think outside the box, and build a collaborate community of such people that can help your organization forge new paths of longevity and evolve into something powerful.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to keep up with series, and follow us on social media to receive the latest updates on articles, videos, and more.

For more insights on Sustainability Ambassadors, and to learn how to foster champions who can take your organization beyond business as usual, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.

Series Schedule:



RRB: Welcome back Collective’s. Now we’re talking with Yue whose been with us for the last four months as an intern. She just done an amazing amount of work. She’s worked in the field. She comes from an academic background. We are talking to her today really about what her next steps are. She’s a new intern. She’s a new Assistant Ambassador. She has many years of career left to go and so we hope that you’ll enjoy her thoughts on what she’s learned as an intern. What she’s learned academically but then how she wants to go forward with the rest of her career. So stay tuned. Thank you very much Yue. We really look forward to hearing from you.

YC: Thank you very much!

RRB: So, actually Yue, I want you to introduce yourself, a little of your background, and what you’ve been doing at Collective.

YC: Ok, um. My name is Yue Cao. I am 25 years old. I graduated in 2014 from UCL in London. I have a Masters Degree in Environmental and Sustainable Environment. After I graduated I started working in a London based environmental NGO doing top research. And after that I come to Collective and joined as an intern research analyst. So during the past 4 months I’ve been working on different projects. I remember the first, the second week I was in Collective, I was brought to a client meeting and I was like wow, that’s something. I was really privileged. You guys really trust me. And I’ve been doing like that. The client’s facing project and I also do some research with research manager. We work informal recycling in Shanghai.

RRB: Tell us a little like how did you get into sustainability to begin with? Like what lead you to get your degree in it? What lead you to an internship with the first NGO? What’s your passion?

YC: I didn’t really have any environmental background when I was in my bachelors degree at university. So I studied Finance I mean like, another Chinese girl which was 18 or 19 you do not know what you want to do in life. So I studied finance. And then I think it’s always been something my mind I really want to know what exactly. Like because I grew up in NW China _____. So that, that area is really underdeveloped and I see people struggling. I see sandstorm. I see environmental changes, all this stuff. So I think it’s something I’ve been thinking but never actually make that sort of into action.

Then I realized oh, I’m really privileged. I get to go to this amazing university to learn that why should I learn something. I mean like other people can do way better than me. Like accounting and finance. I can do it, but maybe I could do something else that other people cannot. I think that sort of drive me to do you know, put my thought into action and I really want to learn that. That’s why just you know, I went into the environmental NGO. I tried to understand more about China. What exactly it means and what do international community see the stuff in China.

RRB: What are you trying to learn through the internship process for whatever it may be?

YC: I think it’s like when you graduate, at that stage, you feel you know stuff, but actually do not know. No. So it’s like you’re trying to visual how the things you learn at school can actually be put into the field. Into the work, into the clients. Other people can see the value of yourself. Maybe your brain, maybe something else. So I’ve, the thing I really enjoy at Collective is how, you know for the waste project to take place and having given the opportunity talking to the informal sector on the street. I actually understand way more of what the daily life like. Why they do this job.

This is something you could never learn from reading academic paper or you know, like reading all this informal recycling system or more regulations. That’s also important, but to give you like holistic view of this, what is happening on the ground, this is really important you go outside or go do stuff.

RRB: You know, what do you think you’re going to do? Or how do you think you’re going to do it? Or what are the big questions that you have?

YC: That’s a big question. Well, I think I was saying sustainability and as I said, I want to do sustainability and I wanted to try to relate to sustainability. So what does it mean? I don’t know really. That’s the thing I want to find out, but giving the experience I had at Collective, and I want, I want to find tangible business cases. I want to let people in this sense assume it’s not jut about the environment. I want to let people see it it’s like you can achieve sustainability through attend to a business cases combining social environmental and economic growth together.

I guess I would say that Rich, I was here some day. I was in same conference!

RRB: *laughs* What are some of the challenges that you are personally passionate about when it comes to China? Like, you can do sustainability anywhere in the world. They’re much better careers outside of China, but why do you want to stay close to China?

YC: China is growing man, like you see it. China is massive and China is big. You have say, Shanghai. Shanghai is economically developed, unlike comparing to other cities. First is the same China, but also at the same time, you see this informal recycler. You see people struggling. You see different layers, I would say layers of people. You see people at different stages. Then you see them have their own challenges. So for me, sustainability and how we achieve like kind of you know like, bring equality and bring I don’t’ know. Just like achieving good for different people and the other thing I realized kind of magic about China it’s a big urban cities in China.

RRB: Now you’ve lived outside of China for along time. What are the things that you think people don’t understand about China when it comes to sustainability. Or where is the misconceptions? Or what are the things that you want them to know when you go back to London in a couple of weeks?

YC: Yeah, um well, it’s a pretty good example I think I told you before. When I used to work in environment NGO. They work a lot about the work about how to lobbying Chinese government to change their legislation to have better legislation say wild life, forestry, all the oceans and anything out of like westerns, BC China because China so special. They see China in a very political lens, so they think everything could be changed as long as political process or legislation can be changed. Well I kind of agree on that because I know, I feel how powerful legislation can be if Chinese government want to anything, they can achieve that really quickly.

But the thing about that is so when the people, when you actually want to make anything done, your final goal is to save wildlife, to save the forest. And if you are trying to do through political connections in a political way, that might be other issues coming on the way. It can actually block your true goal. So I feel if, you know if you want to do sustainability or if you want to do good for the environment, we might need to find a way to work with these people, work with the stakeholder trying to bring people all together rather than take, ya know, really hard down __________.

RRB: Do the Chinese people care?

YC: I care. I’m Chinese.

RRB: Ok. *laughs*

YC:  You know, people care. People want to know more, more about this, but at the same time, you know, like a community developments. Wow, it’s booming and people buy more things, we got much. We got way more money to spend. We are kind of like a lost generation. We want to care, but we do not know how. So I think that’s the, ya know the value for people like us. We kind of being the experts. I’m the new entering this world. I think I want to know more about things. I want to change the situation. I want to give my information to the people who want to know. I make it like available and really easy access to people. It’s not something, you know people say oh you just saying this, what does that even mean. This is not something we want or maybe like tangible as possible.

RRB: You mentioned you’re a new entrant. What do you think that you bring to this fight? Like if you were to go talk to a company or to NGO or to someone who you are trying to impress, what do you think that you bring to the table that would be of value to them?

YC: First, I would say passion. You see like people in this few many years and they want to see the young generation, the millennial’s, they actually care. Then for me, personally, I am coming to you and I say hey I care. I want to do good for business. I want to do good for what. But that is not enough. I want to show them I do not just care, I know my things. I understand what I’m talking about. I can show you this is the research I’ve been doing and this is the approach I am taking and this is the project. It worked and why it worked. It is my way and I want to let people know and how we can work together and bring the good for the business and for the world.

RRB: What are some of the things that you think you are missing? What are some of the skills, the tool sets that you wish you had or that you’re going to be going and searching for in your next, your next stage of development?

YC: Because I’ve been thinking this quite a lot. Like I grew up in China until I now studying China until I was 21. So I think I made something, I kind of developed it when I come to UK and I realized to be more. I wish I could have started this journey way earlier. I wish, well I don’t know if I should say in front of camera. I wish my parents let me do more decision myself and I wish my parents gave me the opportunities and promise that I will be more or you should have a steady career.

As something, if like I, I don’t know…..for the future interns, they have amazing opportunity coming to China and understand more about it and understand what sustainability means. For the excuse that I don’t know, …….developing it. I wish I could have started out way earlier.

RRB: While you are with us and while you ‘ve been here you have gone to a lot of events. You’ve met a lot of just young professionals in ecosystem. Like, one, how important is it for you to meet all these people, to keep going to events? Then, two, what’s like your general take away from this group of people who are largely your own age, maybe a little older, maybe a little younger? How important is it to reach out and meet these people and what do you feel when you leave these events?

YC: This is really tough question. I really, really, really love going to this kind of event meeting the community and see so many people care about the same thing. I was their social entrepreneurs like someone like me just into sustainability. But in general, people want to reduce the environment, the impact of their daily life. I think it’s great feeling you see people coming from different communities and they all come for the same reason. When I speak with like we all earn a little bit from those people and when I leave Shanghai it is something I will definitely miss a lot. I don’t know, you being here for like so many years, what you feel like?

RRB: Is it because they inspire you? Or do you learn form each other? Like what do you get from the network, like right now?

YC: Right now, cuz they are really young. They are about my age. They’re even younger than me sometimes. So you feel like you see this social entrepreneur say wow, they actually got guts. Let’s start doing something. Maybe it’s not really the best financial reward, but you start doing things they really inspire me you can get things done like you want to and people know people. Even if you have like small idea or small thought, you should just be brave and bring it out. People will talk with you and people were really having connections they will introduce each other help each of us out. That I think that is something I learned. Like sometimes when I….before like don’t ….oh that’s all in my mind _____ I’ll just say skip or something. Now I wouldn’t. I would really try to speak to people and say there are no stupid questions.

RRB: Ok. So if you think about your career and the ability to have impact in sustainability, what are your thoughts about who you should work for or what you should becoming in terms of…do you think that for you, entrepreneurship? You mentioned that you like the guts of the social entrepreneurship. Do you feel like you’re that gutsy or do you think that for you it’s more about working with the multinational corporate, becoming the manager, the senior manager, the director, the VP? Like what in your mindset is more comfortable for you? Then, what about that is more attractive then say the alternative?

YC: Right, well for me to realize I do not care well. I fell like the company either big or small either it’s a startup or its multinational for many, many years, I work with people first. I really need for me, I needed to be sure if like the people, not like say I really like you so I come to your firm. But, into most like a platform. I was like multinational. Lots of people was say multinational companies have ya know good platform you can get access to local resources, which might be true. But I think you need to be cautious when you choosing that. You can’t be doing kind of similar routine every day.

That’s something you know like when I choose I might keep that in my mind. But, for the social entrepreneurs and they might have a smaller firm, but you know you get hands on. You do all the different types of stuff. I personally really like that kind of events…environment and you work with great people. You just have a laugh. __________ I like that feeling.

RRB: So are there any companies that when you think that you respect, you loved to work for like their brand. Oh, I definitely want to work with that brand or for that brand? Are there brands like I would never work with them because they’re too, I don’t believe them or whatever?

YC: I would not work for H&M.

RRB: Ok, why is that? Why is that?

YC: Everyone, the first like I went to. Well they are fast fashion brand and they do a lot about the social impact or like environment sustainability. They tried to pioneer around that. But like for me and might be well, I will see their fast fashion firstly. You have to have certain amount of volume you to achieve fast fashion. There was a nature of fast fashion you encourage people to buy more and more. Right? So it’s like, when you get volume like that, how can you be sustainable that you recycle 2% of your clothes? What does that even mean?

RRB: So matter what they do, they’re really…it’s never really sustainable?

YC: That’s, that’s my thought. I think they were like green washing, but I don’t know. I do not know much, but for me I would not.

RRB: So then is there a brand that you really look up to? That you’re’ like wow, they’re doing amazing stuff and I would love to work with them?

YC: Um, I think I would like to try understand more with Unilever if I got the chance. I know they are really pioneer the social impact and they trying to do good for liking wash sector. Some other under development countries. So they invest quite a lot money in research and social entrepreneurship. So I would like to find more about that.

RRB: Do millennia’s care more than anybody else? Like would you really sacrifice salary? Would you really pay more? Do you feel like your generation actually cares more or wants to change the world in a positive way verses say the baby boomers? Or do you think that practically like, yeah we’re just saying we’re just younger right now?

YC: I think…it’s like people have the thought, but whether you change that thought into action. It really depends on people. So I am kind of…I have lots of friends same age we went to university together. I change my major that people stick with finance. They were like always kind of joke me and say oh you care so much. Then when I buy a bottle of water, they would be oh boo a bottle water. *laughs* So I think people care, but how would you make them you know actually take action? That’s a question. Right.

RRB: So what do you think the barriers to action? Like what prevents people from taking that step?

YC: I think it’s just like too much hassle. People do not see. When you…say when you buy something I will tell you that is sustainable and that is eco-friendly and you pay a bit extra more. Most people do not see the value out of it. It’s like why should I pay actually more. I cannot see the water I save. So how you make that people connect with the impact they made is really important.

RRB: Are you optimist, pessimist? What keeps you pessimistic or what keeps you optimistic?

YC: I’m optimistic for sure. Well, firstly I’m really young and my generation can do lots, lots of things you guys probably did not have a chance to or you guys want to. We are eager to learn and as long as you have that _____ you learn lots of stuff. Why can’t I? What can I..what am I afraid of? There’s nothing and I think as long as you have a good heart and you know you learn stuff. So, why we should be obsessing about the future even _____ Trump. You don’t know about him, like what we know. We know what he said. I think human always can find their way even the most pessimist situation. They can still find their way. That’s human nature. We work _______

RRB: Well thank you very much. We’re going to miss you, Yue very much. Give us a hug.

YC: I hope you enjoyed joining us. I cannot cry now. *laughs*

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