A Chat With a Sustainability Officer - Part 1/3

Meta Cunder Balzanti shares the basics of the Sustainability Officer position within the company. What is the value of hiring someone for the job and what strategies can ensure their effectiveness in delivering positive outcomes?

May 8, 2024

Deja Kofol, Design Researcher

About Meta

Meta is a Sustainability Officer at Alberts Integrated Piping Systems in the UK. With over 120 years of presence in England and part of a larger organisation with 14,000 employees globally, Meta's role centres on sustainability at the UK site. The company, specialising in brass valves and fittings for plumbing and gas systems, employs around 300 individuals across manufacturing and warehouse facilities.

Fun fact about Meta; she actually studied shoe design but gradually changed her expertise to follow her values. In what turned into an hour and a half long discussion she shared with us insights about her role, practical advice and stories.

What is the value of sustainability manager?
Q: What is your role at the company?

A: My role is to implement our sustainability strategy and ensure that we meet our sustainability KPIs. Overall, my job is split into two main goals. First, I'm working on making our organization more sustainable, which involves everything from operations in manufacturing, on-site recycling, to educating people and promoting initiatives like using the Ecosia web browser, encouraging less printing, reducing car usage, and so on. The other goal of my job is to prepare carbon footprint information about our products, manage certificates, and support our sales team with the information our customers expect in the purchasing process. Most of my email communications are actually with them, and it's becoming more and more evident that without in-depth data, we wouldn't be able to win some contracts anymore.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: It's pretty varied. Right now, I'm leading a project to improve recycling on-site. We've got a good system for industrial waste, but we lack a solution for employee personal waste. This really bothers our employees - they recycle as part of their job but have to throw a plastic bottle into a general waste bin. Although on a large scale, our employees separating their own waste won't have a radical impact on global sustainability, it will have a significant impact on the morale of the people working here. On the other part of the job, I'm dedicating more and more time to commercial projects where customers come in and request data on purchased products. I might have information to answer about 60% of these inquiries (which is a lot better than when I started working here and had nothing 😅) - this part requires a lot of contact with suppliers. At the same time, I’m constantly working on improving the level of sustainability know-how in the company; preparing presentations on sustainability in general, covering topics like life cycle assessments, embodied carbon, etc.

How to integrate the role of sustainability manager into the organisation?
Q: Where does sustainability fit into the company's structure?

A: First, let me point out where it absolutely doesn't belong is under marketing! Because that structure implies that sustainability is here for lip service, sales, and good PR. The sustainability manager (or whoever is responsible for sustainability) should report to operations or someone who can actually make a change. Obviously, leadership's support and its commitment to sustainability are crucial, they enable other things to fall into place almost like dominoes. However, we shouldn't neglect ground-up initiatives. Even if you don't have someone above you who cares, you can still start a change that might focus on reducing costs or optimising a process and at the same time improve the sustainability of the company. This way, you can educate people that sustainability isn't just about cotton tote bags but about actual process improvements, increasing efficiency, etc.

"We have this cutting tool that needs to be made of carbide, and roughly once a month, the tool becomes dull and needs to be completely replaced. Note, each tool costs around 400 £. In order to optimise costs, one of the engineers came up with a design for a replacement where most of the tool is made of steel an has a replaceable carbide blade. So, unlike before, only the blade is replaced, which is the only part that wears out and actually needs to be made of carbide. This is one of those projects where we've saved money, reduced tool setup time, and, at the same time, the solution is more circular and therefore sustainable."
Q: What departments do you closely collaborate with?

A: Specifically in our case, I’m situated in product and process development, which is our R&D department. This of course depends on the company, but for us, it makes sense because most of our sustainability impact is in materials and processes. So it makes sense that I work closely with these people and help them take a sustainable approach to their activities. This structure is especially effective for manufacturers. Since we're quite an energy-intensive industry, I'm also involved with the operations and quality departments, helping them assess the sustainability impact of their efforts to simplify processes and increase product quality.

Q: Where do you see your role heading in the future?

A: In the long run, we should strive to integrate sustainability as much as possible into all departments in the company. Every company needs at least one person for sustainability who leads efforts in that area, but we all need to become aware and proactive. It’s when people start tackling the same problem from different angles that more and more opportunities emerge.

"Last year, I put together a two-hour program for our design engineers consisting of presentations, videos, and articles relevant to their work, including materials on circularity and design for disassembly. One direct result of this was that they started questioning themselves about how to replace adhesive with mechanical joints on some products, and in the end, they came up with a feasible solution themselves."
How to choose the right person for the job?
Q: What would you say are some of the most important skills that help you tackle the challenges of the job?

A: It's crucial to have soft skills, to connect with people, to be able to explain something in a million different ways; to present complex concepts to someone who has no knowledge about sustainability, to someone who already knows a bit about it but wants to know more, and then I need an expert level when talking to experts from other companies. But often what's missing is that lower, approachable level. I need a whole bunch of people in the company on a daily basis, for questions, data, to tell me what's going on, to give me suggestions, so it's really important for people to become your allies. On the other side of the job, when working with data, it’s very important to be focused on details and have the enthusiasm to self-educate. New things constantly come out and you have to very proactively follow the development of the field. Every morning when I start work, I first read a few selected newsletters and spend 15 minutes on LinkedIn, where I follow people who are up to date with what's happening, so I know when new laws are coming and which requirements are changing. The fact is, everyone will have to invent their own job in this field because it’s changing rapidly, and no one can predict what the requirements will be in the long run.

Q: What would be your one piece of advice to anyone working in the field of corporate sustainability?

A: A while ago, I was listening to a speech from a sustainability manager of a larger company and she shared her advice which I found very useful, she said: on Monday, when you come back to work, put a monetary value on your contribution to the company. After that, I went to review all the activities I led and all the projects where I helped close the sale. When you present your financial contribution and project results to someone -no matter if they don’t know or care about sustainability - they won’t be able to say no to you.

Follow along for Part 2; A list of tools and resources helpful for measuring your company's impact and staying up to date with sustainability. Sign up to our newsletter and don’t miss out.