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Leading Voices in Global Sustainability

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Sophia Kesteven

General Manager - Tech Zero

10 Questions to Change The World

October 2022

ESG is the source of a lot of controversy these days; what do you think are some of the greatest challenges sustainability leaders face on this topic?

The controversy surrounding ESG is mostly around companies making misleading claims, or not having detailed plans in place to back up their goals. We’ve even seen this play out at a government level, with the UK Government’s net zero plan being deemed ‘unlawful’. 

 

Because of widespread coverage of a few high-profile bad actors, ESG as a whole has come under a lot of scrutiny and has come to be regarded with scepticism. Sustainability leaders are therefore under a lot of pressure to ‘get it right’, at a time when the sustainability landscape is still very much under development, and many companies are learning at the same rate as their stakeholders and customers. 

 

For example, being carbon neutral is no longer enough to demonstrate climate leadership. Citizens (I hate reducing people to ‘consumers’) are demanding serious climate action. Companies need to have net zero targets and be actively reducing emissions; not simply paying for other people not to pollute. As the public becomes increasingly climate literate, companies need to stay ahead in an ever-shifting landscape.

 

This shifting landscape, the fear of getting it wrong, the reputational damage that comes from being accused of greenwashing – all these factors combined can lead to inaction, or ‘greenhushing’. I think the best antidote is a kind of ‘radical’ transparency – businesses need to say what they’re doing, of course, but also what they want to do, but can’t just yet; what problems they’re looking for solutions for; and what they’re not doing and why.

How do you think climate change and the global sustainability agenda will impact your industry over the next 3-5 years?

I think the social and environmental impacts of the tech industry will be under an increasingly bright spotlight, especially as more businesses go digital. All the discussion around the resources that go into making tech products has gained a lot of traction recently, prompting more marketplaces for refurbished or recycled tech. I hope the use of second-hand tech becomes the norm in the next 3-5 years.

Companies need to have net zero
targets and be actively reducing emissions; not simply paying for other people not to pollute.

But I think the real shift will be in how we think about emissions from our online behaviour. The internet is such a ubiquitous, intangible thing, and I don’t think most people consider the large physical footprint of data centres, and their serious carbon footprint. Data centres require a lot of energy to use, to keep cool, and to run 24/7 (especially if mining ‘proof of work’ cryptocurrencies). I think there will be a massive shift of focus to the ‘hidden’ emissions from our use of digital infrastructure, and data centres and cloud providers will really have to up their game when it comes to transparency.

Women are more likely to be appointed to head of sustainability than men. What specific values do you think women bring to these roles that make them better suited for the tasks?

Applying a gendered binary to values makes me uncomfortable - I don’t think there are values specific to women or men. That said, my colleagues and friends - both men and women – often joke that women simply care more. And I think there is some truth in this. Women face systemic injustices on a daily basis in a way that is largely invisible to (cis, white) men. I think being attuned to these means we’re more likely to be attuned to other social injustices, and the injustice of climate change, which leads women to be more likely to have the passion and motivation to work to solve these issues.

 

Sustainability as a field is also relatively new and has emerged at a moment in history when the push for diversity and equal representation is bearing fruit, and women are finally able to move into leadership positions. Along with the factors motivating women to work in the field, sustainability simply hasn’t had time to be dominated by men.

How important do you think diversity is in improving ESG scores overall for a corporation, and how do you see that manifesting itself? 

You cannot implement a strategy that will benefit all people if it’s put together by a homogenous group.

The ultimate goal of ESG strategies is to create fairer, more equitable workplaces that contribute to the wellbeing of employees, customers, and the natural world. You cannot implement a strategy that will benefit all people if it’s put together by a homogenous group. Businesses must integrate a multitude of voices to create the structural change needed to create resilient communities and overcome the climate crisis. 

I’m hearing from both companies and investors that having a positive social impact in their go-to-market strategy makes a business stand out. A few companies I’ve spoken to say they’ve found they qualify for many more opportunities and grants than they would otherwise have had, had they not prioritised ESG when they started out.

 

In the next two years, I think environmental and social responsibility is going to be something that investors want across the board. It shouldn’t feel like an add-on or something to make a nice-sounding mission statement. It’s something that will fundamentally determine the viability of a business.

How important are partnerships to your sustainability strategy and how are you forging and managing those partnerships?

Partnerships are incredibly important to a sustainability strategy, and I think businesses will need to form stronger relationships with all their affiliates & suppliers beyond the usual, purely transactional relationships. 

 

Most companies’ emissions will be from their supply chain, or scope 3, so acquiring accurate information from suppliers is important. But perhaps most important is helping suppliers to get this information in the first place, by helping them measure their emissions and understand their own social and environmental impact. We provide suppliers the tools to make it as simple as possible for them to provide us with what we need, such as recommending free carbon accounting tools, or carbon accounting firms they can work with. We’re also happy to have conversations around net zero and emissions reduction, to provide the educational piece and ensure they understand our net zero goals and how they contribute to meeting them.

Who do you go to for inspiration and thought leadership on sustainability?

I will always listen to anything Kate Raworth and Ellen MacArthur have to say. If we can shift to the circular economy they describe, stop our obsession with growth for growth’s sake, and base the performance of our economy on a metric or metrics that take social and environmental wellbeing into account, I believe the world will become a drastically fairer, happier place. Kate was speaking at a climate conference I was at a few months ago, and I was too star-struck to say hi. Regrets!

 

That said, I want to acknowledge that the best inspiration comes from my peers. Being able to have deep discussions on climate change and how they’re working to mitigate it, and hearing the passion with which they speak, always inspires me to do more and do better. And I love that they’re just ordinary people wanting to do the right thing. It gives me hope that maybe the world could be saved after all.

I get really excited by anything to do with mycelium. I truly believe it has the potential to save us from climate catastrophe. It can be and is used for everything from making clothing, packaging, building materials, plant-based meat and (I just found out) growing organs.

I think businesses will need to form stronger relationships with all their affiliates & suppliers beyond the usual, purely transactional relationships.

It can replace plastics as packaging and break them down to rid the world of plastic waste. It can also break down, absorb and utilize the carbon from oil, making it a great oil spill cleaner-upper. And it can do all of this with a fraction of the environmental cost: growing mycelium results in limited, mostly compostable waste, and uses very little energy.

 

And yes, I have just read Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake.

What’s the coolest new idea or solution you have seen in the impact space?

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-Tech Zero’s event at Level39 brought together speakers from Tech Nation, Revolut, GoCardless, Starling Bank, Supercritical, and Depop. -

What is your one ‘guilty / non-eco’ pleasure? (that you can’t live without)?

I think what makes a non-eco pleasure ‘guilty’ is that you do deep down know you could live without it. And I cringe to say that mine’s cheese. A good Comte, or a melty Burrata…UGH! In my defence, various studies have suggested cheese is actually mildly addictive. Maybe I need to go to briehab.

What is your favourite place on earth and why?

Aotearoa! New Zealand. More specifically, the Otago region. The scenery is the epitome of breath-taking and the air so clean it cleanses your soul. Something about it feels welcoming, safe, and every time I go it feels like returning to an old friend. The people are so friendly, with the best sense (“sinse”) of humour. Plus, Māori culture is so deeply interwoven and respected. If everyone could go to New Zealand (without the carbon footprint involved in getting there, somehow) I think everyone would want to save this precious planet of ours.

If you could go back in time, when would you go back to and what would you do to impact the current state of climate and social imbalance?

The imbalances are so historically intractable I honestly don’t know. I don’t think you can fix one without the other. Where would I start?! If I were religious, I’d say I’d go back to Eden and get rid of the snake, so Eve would be blameless and we’d all still be living in paradise.


I think we could have had a lot more clean energy from nuclear over the past 50 years had the Chernobyl disaster not happened. But then we’d still be left with uranium mining and large amounts of nuclear waste. I think a more interesting one would be to go back to the 1930s and convince Simon Kuznets not to implement GDP as the measure of economic progress, and introduce him to Doughnut Economics instead.

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"If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime I have witnessed a terrible decline. In yours you could - and should - see a wonderful recovery.”

 

-​ Sir David Attenborough