Julie Owst from Bidfood – who are generously supporting our Catalyse Change programme again this year – tells us all about her green career journey and some of the learning along the way.
Julie Owst, Head of Sustainability and Change at Bidfood.
Qualifications: Academic: BA (Hons) French, Professional: Change Management Practitioner (APMG)
Why did you become an environment/sustainability professional?
Although I’ve always been a keen environmentalist for as long as I can remember (I was a fully paid up member of Greenpeace at 16!) I never set out to work in sustainability; if environmental jobs existed back when I started my working life in 2000, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. I specialised in languages with no idea of what I wanted to do. I graduated in 1999 and got a job in logistics, hoping that it would be a good way to develop skills and that I’d work out a better plan on the way.
What was your first environment/sustainability job and how did you get it?
I was still working in logistics at that time, and had been on the graduate scheme, so I’d spent time working in operations, business development, marketing, and gained a good level of commercial awareness. None of those roles involved sustainability, until we won a distribution contract with a major retailer who had commissioned the building of ‘Europe’s greenest distribution centre’. I got the role of ‘Communications and Culture Manager’ and driving a ‘green’ culture was a major part of that role. I’ve always been fascinated by human motivation and psychology, so that role actually led on to me working in employee engagement and change management (rather than sustainability) but those skills are absolutely relevant to working in sustainability, as you can’t achieve much at all if you don’t take people on the journey with you.
How did you progress your environment/sustainability career?
To be honest, working in sustainability in the corporate world didn’t interest me. I’d seen a lot of ‘greenwash’ by then, and environmental jobs still largely focused on compliance and audit, which didn’t interest me at all. I was totally focused on developing skills in change management, and as part of this development, I was offered the role of Business Change Manager, leading the sustainability programme at Bidfood whist also supporting other business projects. The rationale was that we already had subject matter experts in the business for their areas, and it needed a programme manager rather than a sustainability expert. Looking back, it was an inspired move by our HR Director, as I am absolutely convinced that you need a good grounding in the corporate world to be able to influence it and navigate its challenges; passion and enthusiasm for sustainability are a prerequisite but alone, they’re not enough.
What does your current role involve?
I lead our sustainability programme and feel very fortunate to work in an organisation that devotes so much resource to the programme. We have five workstreams, focused on people, products, environmental impacts, leading change and engaging our communities. Each of those workstreams contain subject matter experts, who lead diverse activities, from managing product accreditations, energy strategy, waste management, CO2 reduction, community engagement, learning and development, etc. In summary, my role is all about making sure our sustainability programme meets the evolving needs of our customers, so it involves a lot of communication, influencing, change management, and crucially, taking ownership of developing my knowledge and awareness so that I’m always up to speed with the latest challenges in foodservice and hospitality.
What’s the best part of your work?
I honestly don’t know where to start, as it’s genuinely the best role I’ve ever had. Not the easiest, but the best! Knowing that I am making a difference is hugely rewarding, and I love building connections with people across the business, as sustainability touches everything, it’s a huge subject. I love being able to make change happen. Sometimes change feels really slow, but when the end of summer approaches and thoughts turn to writing our annual sustainable development report, I realise all the progress that has been made over that year. It’s also never static; new environmental challenges appear on the horizon with alarming frequency, so you can never stand still; there’s always another challenge to be faced.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome these?
The challenges are huge. Anyone that knows me knows that this is far more than just a job for me, so it can be hard to switch off, when let’s be blunt, we are in an environmental crisis. I really, really care, so sometimes I am discouraged that we can never move far enough, fast enough. The job is never ‘done’. There is always more that we should be doing, but in a corporate environment you’re not a charity or NGO, you wouldn’t exist if you weren’t generating profit, so there is a delicate balancing act to be achieved. The job can feel like an emotional rollercoaster; huge steps forward at times, and other times it feels like a painful marathon, uphill. There are loads of coping strategies though. I love running, and I live in the Wiltshire countryside, not only does this de-stress me but it reminds me of the beauty of the planet we’re working so hard to protect. I also proactively build connections with other people working in sustainability in different organisations; I’ve met some great people and it helps maintain motivation.
What was the last training course or event you attended and how does it benefit your work?
I went on a course to become an accredited facilitator. I have to lead and/or facilitate a lot of meetings, and it’s a challenge to do this really well. The facilitation course helped me understand how to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, it made me realise that what you ‘see’ in the meeting is often only the visible part of an iceberg, and that feeling are often running deep below the surface – so how to acknowledge this and navigate through it. It’s not an ‘obvious’ choice for a sustainability professional but actually it has huge relevance, as most decisions and discussions take place in meetings, so we need to make sure those meetings are productive and effective.
What is/are the most important skill(s) for your role and why?
Curiosity isn’t often talked about but a natural curiosity to ask questions, to not take things at face value and to question what you’re told is really valuable. It keeps you learning, it prevents complacency and means you’re always keen to learn more.
Also, resilience and grit. There will be knockbacks and you have to learn not to take them personally, to bounce back, regain your mojo and carry on!
What inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Human rights, without a doubt. Your experience of the climate crisis will depend a lot on where you live, your income, gender, your proximity to power and your ability to make your voice heard. The least responsible for climate change will suffer its gravest consequences, and this is a huge injustice that will always motivate me.
What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to work in sustainability?
Work hard to gain credibility and respect in your workplace. Learn to listen, so you can understand more about why people don’t necessarily think like you do, with the hope that you can influence them. There are many divisive and controversial issues, so try to build bridges, not trenches, so that you can bring about positive change.
Would you like to hear about more inspiring role models for working in sustainability?
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