· Features

Diverse workforce key to 'green calories'

It sounds unbelievable, but by 2050 it’s estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, compared with just over 50% now.

This will have huge implications for society and a company such as ours, whose core business is based on preserving scarce raw materials, water, energy and using waste.

Their density affords cities the potential to transform into sustainable urban living environments. So we partnered with LSE Cities, an international centre within the London university, to consider the implications.

The LSE found that we could follow one of two paths: a resource-efficient collaborative consumption society based on a circular economy; or a resource hungry urban sprawl. That’s a stark choice.

Veolia is in a key position, providing environmental solutions for half the UK’s population, including treating wastewater, collecting domestic recycling or maintaining public parks. I made it my priority to ensure our business strategy aligned with a sustainable future and inspired others.

So what’s changed? We see the future in terms of a circular rather than a linear economy. The resource industry has a major role to play by ensuring that all materials are reused not once, but two or three times. We’re not just the middleman and realised we could do the reusing ourselves. We are changing our business model to take more control of our supply chain and become a manufacturer of green materials and green energy.

In effect, we’ve taken a leaf out of our own book and followed the model of the circular economy we already use when manufacturing our own peat-free compost, ProGrow. This is converted from garden waste and returned to enrich those very gardens it might have been sourced from. In this way we will help preserve peat, which is a finite resource that helps support biodiversity, carbon storage and flood management. Green calories are my next priority.

As a country we must look at alternative energy and heat sources. Energy from waste is one that is still not fully realised. We could produce 10% of the UK’s renewable energy targets through this technology. This year we opened London’s first energy-from-waste district heating network in Southwark, which will save 8,000 tonnes per annum of carbon emissions. This follows our Sheffield District Heating network and typifies the circular economy in action. We intend to replicate this in other UK communities.

Innovation is key, and having a diverse workforce is critical. In some senses we are already very diverse – our staff in London speak more than 90 languages – but in others the industry remains traditional. However the logic is impeccable – businesses with diverse management teams tend to be more successful. The Fortune 500 reveals that businesses with the highest representation of women in management are among the highest financial performers and returns on equity of +35%. With 58% of graduates female, why select from only 42% of the pool? We need to encourage more women in the industry, particularly at senior levels.

On diversity, I refer to all areas, from ethnicity to sexuality (we are a diversity champion with gay rights charity Stonewall, for example). This isn’t a short journey. This is a big change – not just for us as a company, but for the UK. But the gains are equally big. That’s why, instead of being left to go round in circles, we need to take a lead with the circular economy and make a sustainable future a reality.

Estelle Brachlianoff is executive vice-president, UK & Northern Europe, Veolia Environnement.

Free event

HR magazine is partnering with Business in the Community (BITC) for a panel debate on increasing diversity in STEM jobs, and how diversity leads to innovation. The panel is part of BITC's Responsible Business Week 2014 and takes place on Wednesday 2 April at 11am, at the Barbican in London. HR magazine readers can find out more and register for free via this link.