March 2016 | Namrata Narasimhan

'Sustainability is the way forward'

Sarah Matheson is general manager, sustainability, and leads the sustainability agenda for Tata companies in North America. Her passion for the environment began in her childhood and she has been associated with the field for the past 13 years. She loves outdoor activities, travelling and has recently started focusing on hand-made gifts and crafts.

What does your role as head of sustainability for Tata companies in North America involve?
My role is to facilitate interactions between Tata companies and the NGOs, vendors and partners; bring the Tata North American companies together to share best practices and leverage common efforts; provide strategic and technical advice related to sustainability strategy and programmes, work with many of the sustainability officers in Tata companies' headquarters and the North American companies. In short, to build a network and provide resources to catalyse success.

What do you like best about working in the field of sustainability? What is the significance of your work in your life, personally and professionally?
Sustainability is an exciting field as the issues themselves are evolving. Sustainability is the way forward in business and is a huge opportunity for Tata companies to reduce cost, mitigate risks, and generate revenue, while being a company that is making an impact in our communities and world. I love the challenge that sustainability brings to think about what we do in a broader, more holistic way.

Tell us about some of the sustainability initiatives that Tata companies in the North America region are involved in.
In North America, Tata has a presence of 12 companies with very diverse sustainability issues. Each company is working to understand their social and environmental impact and opportunities. On the social side, many of our companies have a relationship with First Book which works to provide books to children who would not otherwise have them and so far we have provided around 350,000 new books. Many of the companies have their own customised social programmes that meet the needs of their local communities, for example mentoring and training students in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

On the environment side, the companies are also making great strides with a focus on energy efficiency, waste reduction and alternative energy to name a few.

How is your current profile, managing the Tata group's sustainability activities, different from what you have done in the past?
While I have worked in sustainability for quite a few years, this role is a bit different. I have more opportunity now to help drive the initiatives and programmes in comparison to the past when I was a consultant. I accepted this role because of that opportunity, the diverse industry and issue areas as well as because of the clear commitment from the top of the organisation to sustainability.

What led to your interest in the environment? What made you decide to take it up as a career?
I've been passionate about sustainability for a long time. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors. My science teachers really sparked my interest in environmental science. I started competing in school competitions to identify soil types, bird calls, and to solve environmental issues. It was this last challenge that really got me interested. This also encouraged me to pursue environment science and management at university.

How do you practice sustainability in your life, outside work?
I am striving to learn more and do better on sustainability issues beyond work. I am on the board of a group that focuses on educating children on the environment and I try to volunteer at least once a month. I also try to reduce my personal carbon footprint by cutting down the amount of food waste and food miles related to personal consumption. I have a garden at home and compost my food scraps and return it to the garden as fertiliser. In my house, we use LED light bulbs and set the thermostat to focus on efficiency. I take public transportation to work and am a member of a car share. But my biggest challenge is my air travel – it is very impactful on climate change. To mitigate this, I buy carbon offsets yearly.

Have you noticed any change in the way people view 'sustainability' today?
I think the difference today is that more people, of all ages, economic status and race, think about sustainability than in the past. It has become a more widespread discussion on how to get engaged. And in North America, I've noticed that the do-it-yourself (DIY) / Maker Movement and sharing economy are trends that are becoming quite popular and generally benefit the environment. The way consumers think about buying products has changed and consumer brands are making it easier by publishing who made the product, how it was made and the process details.

You love outdoor activities and travelling, and also various creative endeavours. How often are you able to make time for these interests?
Never enough, but even walking to the metro each day is a great opportunity to enjoy nature all year round. I tend to be more creative in the colder months, and more active and outdoors in the warmer parts of the year. One of my resolutions in 2016 is to go on a hike to new places each month.