Q&A with Nicola Stopps: Founder and CEO of Simply Sustainable

27 September 2022 Consultancy.uk 9 min. read
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Now in its 12th year in business, Simply Sustainable has since its inception grown into one of the leading sustainability and ESG consultancy boutiques in the country. We spoke with founder Nicola Stopps on the company’s growth and some of the key challenges leaders face in their ESG journey.

Can you walk us through your career to date?

From a young age I was exposed to the importance of campaigning for positive social change, as both my parents were teachers and actively involved with campaigns such as Greenpeace.

My childhood experiences therefore played a significant part in moulding critical viewpoints that have shaped me today – from women’s rights to sustainability – and instilled the idea within me that you should strive for accountability to elicit social change.

Nicola Stopps, Chief Executive Officer, Simply Sustainable

During my undergraduate degree I spent a lot of time in the university library. It was here that I first read a book about the damaging impact that the Yangtze dam had on the environment, followed by a different book that discussed the thousands of people that had been lifted out of poverty by the creation of the dam.

Together, these works triggered my realisation that climate issues are holistic in nature; there is no singular or even ‘correct’ solution but taking an active involvement is critical. It also made me realise that businesses have the scope and reach to create positive and transformative societal change and I knew that is where I could have the most impact.

Prior to Simply Sustainable, the now award-winning sustainability consultancy which I founded in 2010, I achieved a Geography degree from University of Exeter and received my Master’s in Environmental Impact Assessment and Auditing from the University of East Anglia, which led me to my previous roles which included Head of Corporate Responsibility at T-Mobile, Director of Sustainability and Environment at Travelodge Hotels, as well as working for DHL and the BBC.

Since founding Simply Sustainable in 2010, I have worked with many international and national organisations on developing their ESG and sustainability programmes. Our long-term clients include London Stansted Airport, Costa, EE, Direct Line Group, easyJet, Spotify, Volkswagen, Manchester Airports Group, Berkeley Group, Central England Cooperative, Amtico and Investec.

What encouraged you to start Simply Sustainable?

Throughout my career in ESG, it quickly became clear to me how professionals inside and outside of the field over complicate terminology in the sector. The origin of ‘Simply Sustainable’ therefore heavily derives from these frustrations which motivated me to start the business.

I wanted to build an organisation that was a joy to work with, that was highly skilled and knowledgeable but didn’t over complicate and removed the unnecessary use of complex terminology and language (as it had to be sold into the business).

From where I stand, jargon has no place in ESG. The only purpose it serves it a detrimental one, slowing down vital change which we cannot risk stalling on any longer.

How has the company grown since founding?

For some time, corporate sustainability and ESG in business has been a niche and under-funded area. Only in recent years has it been brought to the forefront of our daily news agendas and began to dominate decisions of the corporate world. Through a lot of hard work – and an evolved media agenda that is more favourable to hosting conversations around ESG - Simply Sustainable has grown significantly.

Since September 2021 we have expanded beyond recognition, despite the global pandemic, including the extension of the business into Europe. Testament to the name of the business, we have made sustainability simple for all our corporate partners which is one of the most vital aspects of our approach and something we are most proud of.

What are the company’s expansion plans?

Sustainability and ESG are global values and the international interest we have garnered in recent years is testament to this. We are highly motivated to helping as many corporates as possible practise good ESG, reflected by our decision to expand internationally during 2022 – we are on the verge opening our Amsterdam office.

What are your views on the current ESG talent available in the UK?

The demand for ESG talent has increased at an expediential rate as climate concerns have become more pressing than ever. The outcome of this, however, is a significant skills gap as there are currently not enough skilled professionals with the necessary expertise to address the current corporate demand in a just and fair way.

It is most difficult to recruit from midlevel professionals who need a variety of important skills: to be technically experienced, have leadership capabilities, and an understanding of business value chain, strategy, legislation, and finances. Many people overlook the complexity of ESG; the field itself is technical, multi-faceted and fast paced. A lot of people who move into the sector from other mid-level roles often fall short as it is much challenging than they had anticipated.

In addition, being a successful ESG professional is also about personal conviction: a desire to improve how current business systems work and interlink with society. It is not only about technical skills but having a strong desire to make change which I think is essential.

What are the key challenges within the sector; past and present?

I have been in this field a long time and I have seen many trends and whims come and go. Fortunately, I think the paradigm has finally started to shift as sustainability and ESG is at the forefront of every successful business agenda. The current investment in this space is unprecedented but there is still much to do.

It is reassuring to see that there are many inspirational, committed activist CEOs who are focused on enabling change. However, there is still not enough understanding on interest when it comes to board level. I would love to see more CEOs take on the mantle to transform value chains, returning value not only for shareholders but for wider society, too.

How do you think our country is faring in its corporate goals to reaching net zero?

Net zero is a collective global effort, so achieving it will not be successful until it is reached on a global scale. We need more worldwide investment in transforming to a zero-carbon economy, and so it is frustrating to see laggards in any sector as this ultimately slows the progress made by industry peers.

Setting up long term goals such as the 2050 net zero strategy is necessary to drive transformational change, but we cannot rely on distant promises. We must start taking action now, not only ensure we achieve future goals but to help get us there faster and mitigate any potential detriment to climate impact.

Are there any countries which you think the UK should be replicating in its ESG efforts?

Over the past twelve months, the most impressive person I've witnessed was Sandra Mason, the first president of Barbados. Not only does Sandra speak with such passion and knowledge about climate change and the impact it will have on her country and people; she stands with gravitas and passion and has done so in a sea of corporate men. I would like our government to demonstrate as much conviction and understanding of the consequences that failing to act will have.

The fields of ESG and sustainability are not necessarily heavily male dominated themselves, yet there is a current lack of women in leadership positions, including climate negotiations. Illustrating this is how men took up 10 out of 12 UK leadership team positions at COP26 last year, according to SHE Changes Climate.

A lack of female representation has a direct and detrimental impact on decision making, and so it is even more vital to ensure those voices are heard and accounted for.

What is your opinion on ESG reporting?

Effective ESG and sustainability disclosure and performance reporting is an integral part of every worthwhile sustainability approach. A GRI audited report is very different to ESG disclosure used by the city; whilst both are seemingly robust a Corporate Sustainability report gives so much more insight into the holistic impact of a company and its future viability.

What do you think is the common perception from business leaders of ESG?

Lots of business leaders will publicly voice the importance they believe ESG to have yet fail to deliver on this through their own climate strategy and action. Others have genuine intentions to deliver on ESG within their business but claim to lack the knowledge on the progressive steps that will help to get them there.

Sustainability is a new field for many and those with the expertise will never expect businesses to get it right without a certain level of guidance and advice. Having said this, there is no excuse for corporates large or small for not putting sustainability at the core of their business model and it is frustrating to see some corporates undermine its complexity.