The Importance of Sustainability  ~ An Interview with Marina Lussich

This is the third in a series of interviews with leaders within M&A and strategy, corporate development, and finance, focused on key issues and thought pieces.

Sustainability and the environment have become an increasingly important topic of discussion in recent years, especially highlighted by with events like London climate activists’ sit-down protests, Greta Thunberg’s debut speech at the Climate Action Summit and recently the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. Increased public awareness along with government legislation have led to a greater number of opportunities and challenges with regards to pollution, waste management, recycling, and carbon management. Organisations are increasingly responsible for developing efficient processes, using fewer natural resources and producing less carbon emissions and waste.

We recently had the privilege of interviewing Marina Lussich, Senior Strategy and Environment Delivery Manager at Royal Mail, with vast experience in environmental sustainability across different industries. Marina shared her views on the importance of businesses recruiting people who know about and can drive environmental sustainability, and described for us the skills and experience required to start or redirect a career towards that subject area. Marina also discussed the challenges and opportunities organisations face today on this critical subject.

Tell us how you started a career in sustainability?

My background is in civil engineering with both a major and masters in transportation. My focus was very early on in inclusive transportation, accessibility from a disability perspective, affordability and competitiveness, and sustainability both a financial and environmental perspective. Understanding the impact of people and goods transportation on our environment then led me to a wider sensitivity towards sustainability in the broader sense of the term.

After training I’ve had an extensive career in consulting for governments and private companies to deliver environmentally sustainable strategies, which includes efficient operations, processes and quality outcomes. I have been involved in strategic transformation programs across different industries such as postal and logistics, telecommunications, insurance and healthcare in the UK, Spain, and all over Latin America.

My latest project has been working on decarbonising operations in logistics and final-mile, shifting to electrical vehicles, micro mobility and emerging technologies like bio-compressed natural gas and hydrogen.

What sustainability initiative are you most proud of?

There are many initiatives I have been involved in over my career of which I am proud of. I have radically transformed the way people and freight move in some of the largest cities in Latin America. However, if I had to choose one it would be being part of the Net Zero journey with Royal Mail in the UK, addressing key environmental challenges including climate change, clean air, congestion and accidents, efficiency and supply chain productivity.

Royal Mail has a significant focus on transport decarbonisation, reducing energy consumption in buildings and moving towards renewable electricity across the property estate. The operating model of postal operations in the UK involves a significant footprint of delivery on foot – if you think about a day in the life of a postman or woman, they drive their vans and park and then do their deliveries walking with a small trolley or a pouch. Parcels and letters delivered mainly on foot means that Royal Mail has the lowest reported CO2e per parcel of any of the major delivery companies in the UK. I am incredibly proud to be part of that. But it is not enough to have the lowest carbon per parcel in the UK, more needs to be done. Royal Mail are going even further to decarbonise the fleet, properties and reduce the overall energy and carbon footprint.

What is the biggest sustainability opportunity and challenge for organisations?

The biggest challenge the world and organisations face today is decoupling economic growth from growth in emissions, to stop increasing pressure on the environment. An economy that can sustain economic growth while reducing the amount of resources used, as well as curbing emissions, pollution, waste, and other environmental hazards is the absolute right thing to do. However, this is a real challenge and therefore the key question for both small and large organisations is how to grow in a sustainable way, from every perspective. Whether organisations are selling a product or offering a service, they need to consider how to create less emissions, pollution, waste into the atmosphere and waterways, to have a chance to slow and stop what we now know is happening with global warming.

Organisations that embark on a net zero journey can definitely leverage the fact that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious with their shopping decisions and lifestyles. This behaviour has increased during the pandemic in some regards, although things like return to private car use due to risk of using public transport during the pandemic, has set us back. We are faced with a fantastic opportunity for companies to deliver and respond to climate change concerns. As the emphasis on sustainability continues to intensify, organisations will want to focus on innovation that meets consumers’ concerns, reduces harm to the environment, and in the long run, also make financial sense.

Here are two examples I can share from different industries:

Spinning Wheel of Consumption

An enormous amount of use clothing which is still wearable ends up in landfills every year in the UK. Any garment that is not 100% cotton, such as polyester or plastic, does not biodegrade or takes an exceptionally long time – hundreds of years. This is not just a problem in the UK but worldwide – we have seen horrific images such as the ones in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Those piles of clothes are never going to decompose. They are just in someone else’s backyard.

There are many schemes that encourage consumers to revive old fabrics or upcycle garments into something completely new, which is an effective way to be more sustainable, as well as save money. Many people in the UK donate garments to charity shops, which is better than sending them to landfill. However, I would be cautious about this approach, as it can create a “spinning wheel of consumption”. There is only so many times an item will go to a charity shop and then to a consumer and then back again to a charity shop. At some point in the chain the garment will end in landfill. So, it is about balancing consumer choice and freedom, with conscious decisions about what you really need, and realising the full impact of your purchase. And it is not just about the resources, water and energy used to produce the garment, but also importantly what happens to it after the end of life.

I have personally not bought any clothes for myself since March 2020. How can we be more sustainable individually and collectively and go back to a simple economy? Hand me down’s, sharing and repairing are now back in vogue!

Where do your soya beans come from?

When making lifestyle changes to be more environmentally conscious it is always good to understand the bigger picture and get all the data. In the last decade, veganism has become a predominant trend worldwide, which supermarkets and restaurants have used as an opportunity to attract environmentally conscious customers. However, the full impact of vegan choices – and not just the health, nutrition or animal welfare aspects – should be made really clear.

Soya and almond “milks” are now ubiquitous in every café in the UK. Soya beans are not grown in the UK, they are imported from countries like Brazil and Argentina. Same with almonds – 90% of the world’s almonds are grown in California. These beans coming from overseas means their transport creates carbon emissions and pollution. There are other factors to think about such as agricultural practises and the amounts of land, feed, energy, and water required, for cow milk versus alternatives. You have to have all the data to make an informed choice.

One of the biggest challenges is for companies to measure their carbon footprint end-to-end, taking everything into account in the value chain: transport, energy, manufacturing, as well as the footprint of their suppliers, raw materials, water usage, and distribution, including retail and returns. Only a full, end-to-end vision allow us to assess whether something is more or less sustainable, and make choices.

Why is a position such as yours in sustainability important? What are the benefits of an organisation having a role like yours?

Roles that look after an organisation’s impact on the environment and sustainability are absolutely critical in today’s business, and not just a ‘nice to have’. The benefits are brand value, increased efficiency, attracting valuable talent, and creating new opportunities, as well as thought leadership. We see many more roles coming into businesses such as Chief Sustainability Officer or Director of Sustainability which large organisations recruit for.

Marina sees five key drivers of this shift: consumers, investors, employees, government, and competitors:

  • Consumers

    Increasingly demand high quality products at the lowest price, manufactured and delivered in a sustainable way.

  • Investors

    Shareholders, financial entities and funds are increasingly investing in ‘green’ organisations. ESG (Environment, Society and Government) is very prominent in investor conversations.

  • Employees

    Requesting for workplaces to be more sustainable e.g. with LED lights in buildings, increased recycling, reduction of waste and water consumption.
    Government and regulation
    Increasingly more ambitious targets for the environment. In the UK, no petrol or diesel cars will be sold after 2030 and no hybrids after 2035. Recently also no more internal combustion trucks after 2040. As a whole, the UK is aiming to be net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

  • Competitors

    Businesses are increasingly marketing ‘green’ propositions both in products and their delivery and packaging, appealing to environmentally conscious customers.

How do people get into a role such as yours? What skills or experience are required for this role?

Education path

When I was at university, courses focused on the environment and sustainability were in their early days, but nowadays most universities offer full programmes both at undergraduate and graduate level. So, one option is to go into (or back to) education and get formal qualifications.

Alternative path

For those who don’t have a degree in environment or sustainability there are other paths available. I would say gaining experience in project management, supply chain, sales or procurement can help you progress in your career and move towards those subject matter areas. You can gain expertise in a particular area without any formal training, but doing focused roles. If you’re interested in moving to sustainability roles, try and get onto projects that are related, such as decarbonisation projects in fleets or buildings or industry. Get yourself into roles like project manager or business analyst, where you can gain exposure to data, technology and innovation. There are lots of MOOC (massive online courses) as well.

We have all sorts of people working in sustainability, coming from diverse backgrounds such as architects, economists, sociologists, psychologists. It’s an incredibly broad and fascinating topic. And I would say it is not just about emissions and the environment, sustainability is also about people and communities, and how economic activity impacts on them.