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Investing in our planet: Q&A with Sarah Kirton

Although we’ve known about climate change since the 1800s and the issue has constantly made the news since the 1980s, global warming and climate change statistics continue to be utterly dire. Almost 100% of global warming is due to human activity. Climate change is responsible for at least 150,000 deaths per year, a number that is expected to double by 2030.

It’s clear that it has never been more important to act – at an individual level, at a business level and at a governmental level.

For this year’s Earth Day, we sat down with Sarah Kirton, Group Sustainability Director at Gamma, to discuss how individuals and businesses can make simple, yet effective changes in their lives and business practice to reduce carbon emissions. Sarah also discusses how Gamma has been taking important steps to improve its own carbon emissions in the journey towards Carbon Net Zero.

This year’s theme for Earth Day is ‘Invest in Our Planet’. Can you tell me a bit more about what this theme means to you?

Sarah Kirton: For me, investing in our planet means being mindful of our own individual impact on our environment. Although it’s a broad theme, Earth Day is targeting three different areas to tackle it: individual action, business action and government action.

From an individual perspective, I believe it’s all about the changes that I choose to make, or things that I choose to buy, that perhaps have a positive impact on our environment, and also on the people and communities I live with.

Climate change is undoubtedly happening. It’s therefore down to us as individuals to try to make choices that, although they might not put us out of our way or change our lifestyle very much, still all add up to be something much, much bigger and impactful.

Ahead of Earth Day, what are some of the choices individuals can make to invest in our planet?

SK: I would say start small – there are many things that won’t really impact your day-to-day life, but that will make a difference. I would never suggest that everybody has to go and buy an electric car immediately, but there are smaller changes that anyone could make around their homes.

For example, using less plastic has a huge impact on the planet, or you could even start by simply using refillable containers. Some other examples could be eating less meat, adopting a more plant-based diet, or eating locally – inside and outside the house. Many restaurants now offer locally sourced menus.

All of those things don’t fundamentally change the way we live, but they do make an impact on the preservation of our environment.

I would also argue that we don’t necessarily need to buy as much as we do – we should ask ourselves: do I really need a new pair of jeans? Or a new top? Is there a way to recycle and reuse what I already own?

Or perhaps, simply start buying from stores that are more ethically minded. There’s loads of information out there to make informed and sustainable choices.

We can also make an impact through our own investments, with options such as green pensions or green ISAs.  These types of investments are made in companies that are sustainable, more environmentally friendly, and that tend to produce environmentally friendly products.  Here at Gamma, we offer our employees green options for pensions so it’s really worth looking into and seeing whether investments like that would suit you.

It’s all about finding the best way for each individual to contribute to the preservation of our planet. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly difficult – we can all contribute in an easy way.

What advice would you give to businesses that are hoping to invest in our planet and do better for our environment? 

SK: I’d say ‘do something!’. We all have to start somewhere, and I’d suggest starting by understanding your impact on the environment as a business.

That’s exactly what we’ve done at Gamma over the past 12 months. First and foremost, a business needs to understand the data behind its carbon emissions and waste. That way, it’s easier to assess the impact of the organisation and do something about it.

Another thing that it’s often forgotten is biodiversity – a business might be operating in an area with a particular form of wildlife that might be at risk or compromised by their business processes. That reflection should be part of the initial work to understand the environmental impact of a business.

Moreover, I believe there is a social angle to starting that process. It’s important to understand how a business wants to be seen, what’s its social value and how is it perceived by customers, peers and shareholders.

Once that first phase is completed, only then businesses can start to develop meaningful plans that will target specific areas for that business. This process brings benefits in terms of sustainability, reduces consumption and waste and will likely be received well by existing and potential employees.

One thing to bear in mind throughout this process is the many regulatory changes around this area. Certainly in the UK and across Europe, more frequently than ever before, businesses are being asked to disclose their emissions, their gender pay gap, and similar data around important environmental and social issues.

Business leaders have to make sure they don’t trip up when such requests are made – which is why understanding the organisation’s environmental and social impact is so important to this whole process.

What role does Environmental Social Governance (ESG) play in business strategy? Is it just about investments?

SK: I’d say it’s definitely a hot topic at the moment. You will find an ESG section on most companies’ websites. It’s simply an evolution of what we used to call Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

However, I personally don’t think it’s just about investments anymore. Although ESG has stemmed from the investment community, it has certainly evolved over the past few years. There has been an important shift towards, perhaps, creating a ‘social conscience’.

The reality is that companies are being judged. They’re undoubtedly being judged by investors, but also by their existing and potential employees and customers. ESG encourages businesses to grow beyond profitability and share price. It’s now a matter of demonstrating ethical governance, what social value the company brings, as well as what a company is doing to reduce their impact on the environment.

Companies are also being held accountable.  We’re seeing more regulations and requests for disclosure – the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), a climate-related financial disclosure that’s come into effect recently, is a clear example of that.

People simply expect more from businesses. They have a choice and will start to vote with their feet by moving on to companies that are demonstrating sound ESG credentials.

Earlier you briefly mentioned Gamma’s work around ESG. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

SK: Over the last 12 months, we’ve greatly invested in our ESG strategy. Our SLT and Board are really engaged in the development of our plans and they’ve been incredibly supportive.

I firmly believe that a sound ESG strategy and credentials will make us a more sustainable company moving forward and it will help us attract great talent. Businesses shouldn’t underestimate the importance of showing credible ESG plans to improve their recruitment strategy, especially as new generations enter the workforce, and that’s certainly been a motivator for us as well.

In terms of our environmental impact, I’m pleased to say that we’ve now got a Carbon Net Zero date – 2042. This will be across all of the greenhouse gas scopes – not just Scope 1 and 2, but our full impact.

As a business, we’ve also signed up for the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). That commits us to make sure that our carbon net-zero plans are validated by the SBTi, who will assess whether our emissions reduction plans are in line with science-based targets

From a sustainability and social value perspective, we want to make sure that all our employees across the UK and Europe are able to participate in this process, so we’ve created an ESG working group, where we’re able to discuss all things ESG with our Spanish, German and Dutch colleagues.

We’ve also formed a Charity Forum to support employees with match funding for challenges they undertake on behalf of charities. Thanks to the Forum, we were able to quickly respond to the war crisis in Ukraine by match funding over eight thousand pounds in donations.

ESG is incredibly important to us as an organisation. It’s also important to our customers, particularly our public sector customers, investors and employees.

That sounds brilliant, thank you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

SK: The last thing I’d like to mention, just going back to my first point, is that it doesn’t take a huge change to make a difference. If you can think of a small change you can make as an individual, I’d say ‘go ahead and do it!’.

Try to support ethical companies that are doing their part to invest in our planet. Make positive ethical choices and encourage others to do the same. Talk about the issue and raise awareness of it.

There’s an old phrase that says: “if you save the pennies, then the pounds will take care of themselves”. I think the same applies to investing in our planet – all our small ethical choices will add up to a much greater, positive impact on our future.