Akshata is a Consultant at the International Trade Centre (ITC), Geneva, working in the Trade for Sustainable Development Programme. She advises on sustainability standards and other sustainability related issues across the global value chains, with a special focus on MSMEs. Given her interest in International trade regulation and WTO law, moot mentoring for students in this area of law is her passion project.
She graduated from Government Law College (GLC), Mumbai in 2016 and started her career at Economic Laws Practice (ELP) in the corporate & commercial laws team. After gaining 2 years of full-time work experience, she went on to purse a Masters’ in International Law and Economics at the World Trade Institute (WTI) in Bern, Switzerland.
Beyond professional interests, she thoroughly enjoys hiking and photography, and lately she's been spending a lot (admittedly way too much) time coming up with witty captions for her Instagram.
1. You are a Consultant at the Trade for Sustainable Development (T4SD) Programme —International Trade Centre (WTO/UN) in Geneva. What does that entail and what does a day in your work life look like? *
Broadly speaking, the T4SD Programme helps various actors across global value chains to improve their sustainability. Within this programme, I contribute to various projects, but mainly to the Standards Map tool. It is a neutral repository of information relating to over 300 voluntary sustainability standards, codes of conduct, audit protocols, and company programmes on sustainability. This tool is accessible for free, and it’s mostly used by businesses, governments, civil society members, researchers, and consumers to assess, compare, and understand different sustainability standards.
You may be familiar with Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance, however over the past decade, sustainability standards have proliferated globally across sectors and regions. From these numerous standards and schemes, businesses often struggle to understand which one could be the best fit for them, especially MSMEs with their limited resources. Getting one’s products/services certified by such standards has implications on market access as well as competitiveness. So how can we empower MSMEs with credible information to make this decision? This is where Standards Map becomes relevant.
To specifically describe a day in my work life - it would normally entail liaising with different standard setting organisations, reviewing standards’ documents and then integrating the information in the back-end of our database. This data needs to be reviewed frequently, so that it is up-to-date. Apart from that, I am involved in benchmarking work, trainings related to sustainability standards, and also in organising our annual T4SD Forum – which brings together high-level government officials, business leaders, MSME-representatives as well as innovators to address the challenges in the context of sustainable trade.
For the readers who want to learn more about our work, you can find it on: https://www.sustainabilitygateway.org/
2. How did you decide to pursue the Masters in Law and Economics? What did you consider while making this decision? *
Through all my internships, I worked in corporate and commercial laws practice. This wasn’t by design but since I was mostly assigned to these matters, I developed a keen interest in this area, and I continued to work on that track which led me to the Associate position at ELP. This lengthy explanation to say that I did not know from day 1 at GLC what I wanted to do after graduating, but I took up the opportunity to intern at various law firms and I learned along the way. Decision to change my track by pursuing a Master’s in International Law and Economics was also a journey, and not an overnight decision.
Whereas I was thoroughly enjoying my work, I felt that it limited me to a jurisdiction. I was keen on pursuing a master’s program which was inter-disciplinary rather than a traditional LL.M. Why economics – within the realm of international law, I gravitated towards trade and Investment law, so the combination of law and economics seemed like the best fit. I was also keen on widening my horizon vis-à-vis the job opportunities. I wanted to explore the space of international organizations (IOs), (at the time, mainly the WTO) which brought me to the World Trade Institute (WTI) in Bern. This specialised institute was not only strategic in terms of its proximity to Geneva where most of the IOs are headquartered, but also the extraordinary faculty and professional networking opportunity that WTI offered made it an excellent choice.
I should also mention at this point that I was slightly hesitant in applying to universities in a non-anglophone country. Learning a new language to integrate better in new environment was going to be a challenge. But some of my closest friends from GLC were pursuing their higher education at the Graduate Institute and Sciences Po, and I was inspired by their dedication to learn French along with their studies. Their encouragement and support helped me immensely in taking the leap.
3. How would you compare working in Trade Law in India versus working in the field in Geneva? How do you feel your work experience at ELP helped you prepare for your career? *
At ELP, I was not involved in the trade law related work, and currently I don’t work in a law firm set-up so I would not be able to comment on the workings and comparison of the trade law practice. But I believe that skills are transferable, and knowledge can be gained. My work experience at ELP, has shaped me into the professional I am today. And the credit for that goes to my seniors at work, who have truly been my mentors. They invested in my professional growth. Apart from the invaluable legal training, I truly learned the ABCs of work ethic and teamwork from them. In a fast-paced and consuming work environment of a law firm, it can be easy to lose the sight of one’s personal goals but on the contrary, I thrived at ELP.
Although my work today is not law-related, it requires me to be detail-oriented, and have effective communication and analytical skills. My work experience in India has helped me in developing these skills, and my knowledge on international trade law and policy gained through the master’s programme gave the confidence to apply for this job.
4. It is a very exciting time for trade and Sustainable Development with the heightened awareness about the environmentally and humanitarian development. Could you tell us a little bit more about how trade can be used as a tool to achieve Sustainable Development? *
I would say that it is more concerning than it is exciting. In terms of heightened awareness, especially in the context of consumers there is a fear of general greenwashing, and therefore we need to have platforms that provide neutral and credible information. As per the International Transport Forum, in 2015 the international trade-related freight transport accounted for around 30% of all transport- related CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, and more than 7% of global emissions. They have estimated a four-fold increase of trade-related freight transport emissions by 2050. This could have grave consequences, and therefore needs an urgent response. Sustainability is no more a “nice-to-have” but a “must-have” dimension in the international trade context. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our supply chains, in order to recover from this impact, going forward we need to build more resilient supply chains.
Sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs. However, the system of international trade is much more complex with multiple-stakeholders therefore needs effective tools, long-term planning as well as collective action to address the upcoming challenges. But simply put, trade increases competition and accelerates innovation. If it is supported by the right trade policy tools the development through trade can be sustainable as well as inclusive. In the same vein, I would like to share that my colleagues at ITC, have contributed to a report in 2020, that links voluntary sustainability standards to Sustainable Development Goals, which you may find interesting to read: https://www.intracen.org/publication/Sustainable-Development/
5. What does work-life balance mean to you? How do you strive to achieve it in your daily life especially because as lawyers (at least stereotypically) we are required to work long hours? And any thoughts on the burn out culture in the profession in general, especially since you have a multi-jurisdictional perspective and perspective of someone who worked in Big Law. *
Firstly, let me congratulate you on even considering this question for the interview. I think work-life balance is extremely important, yet mostly neglected. During my law school internships, it was fashionable to be over-worked and sleep deprived. Being a young professional, trying to fit into the work culture, I ignored these red flags. To some extent I understand the pressure of being in a competitive work environment, one feels the needs to prove themselves. We have all been a part of this system that perpetuates the stereotype of working longs hours as the measure of ones’ hard work and dedication. This needs to change. If there are tight deadlines that demand long working hours, it needs a deeper reflection on how often does it occur. Is it compensated for? Not only financially but also in terms of quality breaks when the work flow is lighter. It’s important to have an open dialogue with your seniors at work, they have perhaps gone through the same experiences and might be willing to change it. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns. In my experience, good mentors care for the well-being of their colleagues.
Having said that, I understand that different people have different priorities and responsibilities. But I would like to urge law students and young professionals to not compromise on their health, and personal growth in the long run. Understand the longevity of your career: it’s a marathon, not just a sprint. While I give this advice, I’m also still learning and trying to break my pattern. It is a work in progress.