S2E12 - Karen Higgins of Grant Thornton

Grant Thornton is one of the world’s leading organisations of independent assurance, tax and advisory firms. More than 50,000 Grant Thornton people across 135 countries, are focused on making a difference to clients, colleagues and the communities in which we live and work. Karen Higgins is Head of Sustainability at Grant Thornton UK LLP.


Will: (00:08) Welcome back to the Green Element podcast, where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host, Will Richardson and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. 

[Intro Music]

Will: (00:28) Karen, welcome to the Green Element podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. Karen, you work at the Grant Thornton, one of the best accountancy firms in the world, I would say because we’ve been working for ages and I know how much stuff that you’ve done behind the scenes environmentally and how dedicated to reducing your environmental impact you are. I mean, how would you best describe Grant Thornton and what it is that you guys do? 

Karen: (00:53) Yeah, I mean, as you quite rightly said, we’re an accountancy firm or an advisory firm. Grant Thornton UK is a member of Grant Thornton International. We are a network of organizations that provide services to private sector and public sector, and within that my role is head of sustainability. So, looking at how we can be a socially responsible and social responsible business and how we can reduce the impact that business, business can make on the community and the environment. 

Will: (01:28) And you’ve been reducing your environments and impact for a long time now. I’d say probably eight, nine years you’ve been really focusing in on reducing your impact. Would that be fair to say? 

Karen: (01:41) Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yes. So, probably, I mean a lot has happened over the last eight, nine years or still general awareness levels within the firm and also external from the firm. You know ,you’ve got things like blue planet, which has completely escalated awareness levels and I remember when I first came into the role and I was looking to implement some things that it was like banging your head against a brick wall sometimes. Whereas now, I feel that there are things, for example of finding science based targets where it was a very open conversation. It was a very easy conversation to have and actually it was a bit of a no brainer with our senior leadership team. So, for me that demonstrates how far we’ve come as a business. 

Will: (02:26) And do you feel that with what you’ve achieved over the last eight, nine years, you’re really seeing a benefit to the organization as a whole in the UK and with clients and work, et cetera? 

Karen: (02:40) Yes. I mean I still think there’s a lot of work that we can do, but we have information, we have proof, we have stats, we can demonstrate our credibility in this area, that we are moving forward in this space and that we are wanting to make an impact not just as a tech book it, text book exercise, but that is the right thing to do. There is demand out there from our stakeholders. We want to ensure that we as a business and all our suppliers are moving on in the same direction. So we’ve got stuff to talk about and in terms of the environment, we’re not just talking the talk, we’re actually doing something about it and we’ve got some great examples of things that we can talk to our clients about. 

Will: (03:23) And do you think that that was, the drawer at the beginning was to reduce the impact or what like cost savings is obviously, especially for you guys is such a big thing because you’re a big organization, therefore we can’t, there’s no point hiding from the fact that cost has reduced because of reducing our environmental impact and was it cost driven or was it an environmental driven or was it a mix of both?

Karen: (03:48) If I’m completely honest, I would say it wasn’t necessarily cost driven. It was driven by tenders coming in the door and asking if we were, we had ISO 14,001. I think that was probably where it first came from. So was every, was we were doing staff, I would say we were scratching the surface and when we were being asked questions about the, what else we were doing or whether, if there was an actual thing that we could link all the activity to, such as not having an environment management system, it was a bit more like, well actually I think we need to do this to demonstrate to potential clients and clients when we get compliance questionnaires, that we’re actually credible in this space and we’ve got something to prove the works that we’re doing. So, I think it came from there initially, and this is what I meant when I was talking about banging my head against a brick wall because when we first had those conversations around ISO 14,001, it was almost a little bit like, well we know it’s important but there are other things that we feel are more important at this precise time and therefore it was a real battle to really try and drive this agenda forward because we were doing a lot of stuff. It was just the cost of setting up a proper environmental management system and we then got agreement that we would do this in London because London is our biggest office. It’s got the most amount of people in it and then the idea was we would roll that out quite quickly. What actually happened in reality, we did this in London and it took a little longer than expected to roll it out nationally, which was frustrating but we learnt, I think we learnt an awful lot from doing it out in London alone and then we could take that when we rolled it out to the rest of the regions. However, now because we’ve done that and yes, now we can tick the box that we’re, ISO14,001, it is so much more than that now and where I was coming from all those years ago, I can now, you know, it’s coming to fruition now that we’re talking about stuff that is, it doesn’t matter about the tip box, When it does matter is about we are doing something really positive. Well, the things that we’re doing are really positive in reducing the impact of Ron Fullington on the environment and reducing our own carbon emissions. 

Will: (06:13) Yeah, I mean you’re reducing your absolute reduction emissions by 2% every year on year, which is phenomenal and gas alone is 22% absolute reductions year on year. You’re doing huge amounts and communicating that, how do you engage your staff, suppliers and customers with communicating that message of an environmental impact as a reduction and…?

Karen: (06:40) In a number of ways. So with our own people, probably like any business, we’re always up against the noise. We’re always competing with the noise. However, there are certain things that we do. So, we have something called growing together and a community day, which takes place in September, which is a global initiative, where all of our member firms come together to act, to share, to commit to something around sustainability and for me, that’s a great opportunity for us to tell the world literally what we’ve been doing around all of our sustainability programs, including our environmental agenda. We are able, and, you know, we have, we are able to do blogs on UK intranets, but also worldwide ones. We’re able to tweet out results to the external community. We will put something on our website. So, it’s a real hook of, you know, time of year. 

Karen: (07:36) We also use other hooks across the year such as World Environment Day, over the summer, where there’s a little bit more awareness out there generally that we can then sort of link into again and tell the message. Engagement, I see behavior change is that is a something that we’re constantly working on. You get those within the business that are really behind this. They absolutely live and breathe this stuff at work and at home. You’ve got those that you know, at work, they know it’s the right thing to do but are maybe not quite as passionate yet. I wish to use the word yet because I think it is a journey. And when we’re talking about what we’re doing with our supply chain, I mean, we have a responsible purchasing policy and when we meet with our clients, sorry, when we meet with our suppliers, we take them through that policy. We tell them what you know is important to us. For example, living wage, environment, our and modern slavery policy, to just give some examples and we kind of work with us, the suppliers, those that we, you know, we feel that we were working together and we’re all moving in the same direction in those spaces. 


Will: (08:44) And have you had any kind of struggles and how have you come across those struggles within that communications piece as anything kind of gone, Oh wow, this is really hard work and you’ve tried to work at that and try to overcome it?

Karen: (08:58) Yeah, I suppose I’m, one of the things I talked about earlier was competition with the noise. You know, with a firm of our size, there’s always a lot going on. There’s always a lot of communication. So, it’s how do you pitch your communication in a way that is going to people are going to get it and people are going to want to look at it and willing to take note of it, if you like. We are also a small team. There are two of us within our sustainability team. So, that is a challenge. You know, we want to do so much more, you know, we constantly wants to do more and more. So, it’s for us, it’s being creative in the ways that we do things and it’s about collaboration with others. We know that we can’t do a lot of this stuff on our own. 


Karen: (09:39) And in terms of challenges was communication. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve set up an environmental champions group across the UK. So, these are those people that I said earlier that are really passionate about the protection of our planet. They really believe that we have to do something and we have to do something now and we have engaged with those individuals to create a community of people, of likeminded people that are driving this agenda locally. So Daniel and I sit on a national team and we’re driving the agenda from the center, but we need those people that sit in our local offices to spread the communication, to raise the awareness, to…just generally have conversations with people by the coffee machine and you know, by the water machines. They did you realize, did you know and you know actually h you know that you’re putting your tea bag…we have got a food waste bin here. You know, just having those conversations to increase the awareness and that has helped hugely actually and we’re finding that we’re getting some traction with some of our campaigns now. An example is we ran a campaign called goodbye standby, which is around unplugging monitors, laptops, phone chargers, anything, when you leave, leave your desk or leave the office. You know, we were finding that monitors were being left on and although it’s not a massive, if you look at it in theory, it’s not a massive waste of electricity. If you add all those, you know, add sort of put one, one monitor but if you add them all together across the firm, it’s a substantial amount, but it’s also more about behavior change. It’s about people recognizing the individual step, individual thing that they can do that would make, you know, as a collective, would, make a huge amount of huge difference. So those have been run in some of our local offices. The champions have taken those and run with them and really driven them because they’re passionate about it. You know, we provide a framework of like idea and then they go and maybe tweak the framework and do different things as officers to increase engagement and that’s worked really, really well and what we’re looking to do in the future to use that, use this champion network to generate ideas, drive activity, increase awareness more and more and more.

Will: (12:02) I think that’s really important. It’s that behavior change and highlighting that, as you say, a monitor left on isn’t huge amounts of energy but actually it’s that behavior change and it’s that way of communicating the reductions of your environmental impact as an organization across the board by instilling that very minute kind of behavior across…

Karen: (12:26) And I think it’s understanding the kind of, the small steps that people can make to make big differences and one of the things that we’re going to be doing in September as a part of growing together in the community day, which I mentioned, is showing the film that’s being recently produced, which is a one, I’m sorry, our planet, our business and what we want to do is post screenings of that across Grand Thornton because for me, it was a beautifully shot film but also is the messaging is so powerful and sometimes we think about it in the micro details and we think about it as in we’ll remember to unplug your machine or take the stairs instead of the left or you know, those small things, which are really important because we can all do that, but we need to understand the bigger problem. You know, climate change is the biggest social challenge of our time and people need to understand it. They need to hear the story. They need to understand why it’s so important to do those small things and how those small steps can all add up to something bigger. So, it’s having that bigger view, that real awareness level and then chunking it down to saying, well, what can I do? What impact, for me as an auditor sitting in our Norwich office, what can I physically do? And all those little things that someone can do really, really does add up when you sort of multiply them by 5,000 people across Grant Thornton. 

Will: (13:53) How would you say you approach environmental management and your carbon footprint across Grant Thornton as a whole? 

Karen: (14:00) What, in terms of engagement or…?

Will: (14:03) In terms of reduction. So, if you could take us, like who do you report to? Do you report to senior level, how do you approach environmental management? Is it all led from the bottom up or is it a mixture or is it…?

Karen: (14:17) I’d say it’s a mixture. I think firstly it’s looking at…well in terms of those bigger conversations, we do have a member on the senior leadership team, who is our chief operations officer who is our sponsor, if you like, for environmental management. So, he drives it from a senior partner level. From sort of middle management side, it’s looking at…it’s working with an officer that his management company, NJ. It’s around thinking about where our impacts are and how we can make a difference and working with green elements as well to see where, where we can might make the most impact. Interestingly, we get lot in a lot of questions from our new talent entering the firm as to what we’re doing. The demand is there from new people coming into the firm and that keeps us on our toes, that keeps us moving forward because you know, they come up with some great ideas. Some of the stuff sometimes we were already doing. As you know, a lot of this stuff takes and lots of work in the background and people don’t necessarily see it. But you know, I have regular meetings with the member on the SLT to talk about what we’re doing, what’s happening, where we’re making a difference as well as meetings with NGO facilities management company too. They are fantastic. I must say the success of what we do is, a lot of it, is down to their passion, the energy around this, their constant, not the word that I’m looking for, but their desire to make Grant Thornton the best it can possibly be and for them coming to the table with ideas about what we can do. So, I think it’s a, I think in answer to your question it’s a wheel mixture. I would think you need, you definitely need that support from the top. Absolutely. You need the drive from the center, some guidance, some frameworks, some support, but you also need those people that are passionate locally, that wanting to say, you know what, I believe in this so much. I’m willing to pick this up and drive it and do something about it. Everybody’s busy. Everyone has a busy day job and it’s those people that have got that passionate, that real desire, that make things happen and make Grant Thornton a better place because of it. 

Will: (16:39) Yeah, it’s really good to hear because I think many companies and organizations forget that they do need that senior leadership buy in and they’re so driven to become more environmental, but you almost get stopped, don’t you? At a certain point if you don’t have that senior leadership buy in. 

Karen: (16:58) Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely and I think as well, not only do we have the senior leadership buy in the UK, we have it at Grant Thornton International as well. To provide an example of that is the global partners conference that is taking place in October and I’ve had conversations with the team about well, what could you do in the conference to make it much more environmentally friendly, but how we can not  have as many emissions, reduce emissions through certain things that we can do at the conference. So, it, and that is very much supported by the CEO of Grant Thornton International. So, you know, I think we’ve got some great people, we’ve got some great people that really believe in this and are very, very supportive of it. 

Will: (17:43) Have you got any advice or learning that you’d like to share with people listening to this podcast about this journey? 

Karen: (17:50) Probably the biggest thing for me is keep banging the drum. No matter how many no’s you get or how many kind of go away and write business case about this, which is always a, you know, if you’ve got an idea and you take it to somebody and someone then turns around and says, you know, you need to come to me with business cases sometimes it’s quite disheartening. It’s more about if you believe something is right and you know it’s the right thing to do, absolutely continue to go for it because we know that we’ve got to do things and people that are working in sustainability spaces, environmental spaces, they’re the ones that have got the voice. They’re the ones that have got the drive. They’re the ones that maybe have got the budget to actually do something really positive and it’s about continuing to make that happen, have some good people around you, build a community of likeminded peers and actually keep having the conversation because I think sometimes, and a great example of this is, there was a partner in our firm quite a long time ago now who’s left, who took a lot of convincing about ISO 14,001 and we had several conversations about it and we then got the green light. Yeah, absolutely fine. Off we go. Go ahead. And, and I was at a training course that he was delivering a couple of years later and he actually used this as an example about changing mindset, about if an idea was communicated in a different way and communicated so he could see the big picture, that actually completely changed his outlook on this was around our environmental agenda and he looked at me and he said, oh, you didn’t realize I was going to say that. Did you? And I said, absolutely not. To me that’s what it’s all about. If people don’t understand something and know why they’re doing it or they’re being asked to do it or, yeah, a lot of it is, I think it’s at on an operational level. It’s about people see it as to the benefit of the firm rather than the benefit of the wider community and society at whole and so it’s that awareness level. So I think absolutely just keep banging the drum tenacity’s key. 

Will: (20:07) And now you’ve got so many figures and statistics about how much you’ve reduced and what you’ve saved and, and where you’ve reduced as well and in quite a lot of detail over the years. You said that one of the driving forces was tendering, initially. Has that helped you with that process now being able to fill in tenders and having a firm grip on your environmental and impact? 

Karen: (20:32) Oh my goodness. Absolutely and I would say so. How have many years ago, that was so eight years ago? What’s happened now in the tendering process is that the questions have been, becomes so much more complex. So in the old days it used be a simple question, do you have I say 14,001 yes or no. That was almost all it was. Now, we’re being asked for all the stats around it, for every single thing that we report on and explanations of what we’re doing, what we’re going to do in the future. So, the answers have become much more complex than we are able to because we’ve got the information because we measure it and analyze it, we’re able to provide that information but also be able to, being able to provide, not saying, not just saying, well we have this information, this is what we’ve got or this is what we’re going to do with it and this is how we’re going to use this to really drive forward further reductions in emissions in each of these particular KPIs. 

Will: (21:32) And do you, we touched upon their science based targets initiative and the fact that you were one of the first companies to sign up, then alone sign up to it, but actually have your targets verified. Have you found that that has helped in the communication message?

Karen: (21:48) Internally? Probably not quite yet because I think, again, it’s that understanding of what our science based target is. So, I think we need to do some work around that. However, when you’re talking to people in the know, it is obviously a big thing that we have done this for us, it was a no brainer really. It was like, well, why wouldn’t we? And climate change is so, you know, it’s so key at the moment and we have to collaborate with others. We have to be innovative, we have to be bold. We’re not going to make a difference if we just carry on by scratching the surface. We need to come together with other companies to understand what we need to do to change the direction and you know, in years to come to ensure, you know, we have a planet to continue to live and enjoy. 

Karen: (22:34) So for us it was very much a, a no brainer and this particular person who I mentioned earlier who had had this change in mindset, sat down and had a conversation with him about it. Absolutely, no real discussion really because we knew it was the right thing to do. Also it’s that thing would have, let’s be, be big and bold now. You could always put these things off for, you know, we’ll do it next year, we’ll do it…but why, you know, let’s do it now. Let’s set ourselves both targets, let’s get this thing in motion and let’s also, it’s an opportunity for us to talk to others to say, well, you know, have you thought about doing that? Have you thought about [Inaudible 23:10] up, if not, why not? And try and have that conversation with people. And that actually is been with sort of peers for me in the sustainability community. That’s been quite good. That’s a great conversation to have with people because I think not huge…It’s growing every day, I know but we want more and more companies to sign up and I think if we can help to spread that message, that’s…that can only be a positive thing 

Will: (23:33) And I think there’s an accountancy firm. That message is almost more strong?

Karen: (23:38) Yes, absolutely. 

Will: (23:41) Where do you see yourself going now? Because you have to report on quite a lot of your emissions through various different means whether it’s at CDP, whether it’s the UN, whether it’s, you know, now science based targets and voluntary schemes that you’ve signed up to. Where do you see your organization going or the environmental management within the organization going? 

Karen: (24:04) What, do you mean in, in more in terms of what more we can do? 

Will: (24:07) Well, yes, yes, and is it just keep on reducing? It could be as simple as that or have you got, you know, bringing it more globally, internationally or I’m just curious. 

Karen: (24:20) Yeah. At the moment, I’m mean, we’ve already done one thing. So, I think we have to be, I mentioned earlier about being bolder. So, we have, for all of our electricity supplies that we manage, we now use a hundred percent renewables. So, that for us is quite a big jump and it’d be really interesting to see. We’re actually in the process of analyzing and measuring the results, as we speak, for our previous year’s performance. It would be really interesting to see the impact had but that’s quite a bold move and one that you think, actually yes, we should be doing it. But again, I think that shows how far we’ve come as a business. That actually it was a really easy discussion to have. You know, have you thought about it? Yes. Here’s some quotes. Okay. Yeah, let’s go for it. You know, it’s a no brainer. We shouldn’t not be doing this. 

So that’s something we’ve already done. There is still a lot we can do with our current KPIs. So, as an example, we’ve reduced our paper consumption over the past year 14%, which is, you know, still a great figure. We can still do more. We have so many digital tools at our fingertips that Grant Thornton that we are not using to their full capacity and I will hold my hands up to say I’m probably one of them and there’s certain things I need to use more so that I don’t print out a sheet of paper and it’s training people up on those tools so that they understand. We’ve got, in September, we’re having a bit of a back to school event, if you like, where people are going to learn more about the digital tools and we’re linking that into zero waste week because it’s around for actually if you’re using all these things to one note to make your notes, you’re using Skype so that you’re having meetings over Skype and you’re not traveling, you’re reducing all the time. and that again is a really positive thing. So it’s not just talking about the environment, it is talking about efficiency for our people. You know, working in a much more efficient manner, saving money for the business, but also doing the rights by the environment. So linking all those things in. Travel is a big one, you know, for us, you know, we still have quite a bit of any travel. We travel out to see clients and therefore it’s thinking about, well how could we potentially do that differently? Because is that challenge, isn’t it? The balance of face to face meetings and building that rapport with somebody face to face and doing it over a Skype call where sometimes, can be stilted, particularly if you’ve got lots of people on that call. So how do we get that better? How do we come up with some innovative ideas to do that? So there’s still a lot of work to be done in this space. So, I feel it’s an exciting space to be because there’s still a lot more that we can do. So I think it’s taking opportunities where we can, those boulder opportunities, but it’s also carrying on and looking at ideas about how we can continue to reduce in the work that we’re already doing. 

Will: (27:13) Brilliant. Thank you so much for today. It’s been really interesting listening to how such a large organization is able to reduce that impact and the sort of things that you’re planning on doing as well and how you’ve reduced your environmental impact. Thank you so much. I mean, to find out more about Grant Thornton, have you got place for people to go to and obviously put the links on all websites, et cetera? 

Karen: (27:36) Yeah. On our website we have got some information about sustainability and so on. Some of the stuff that we’re doing and we’re looking to kind of add to that over the next few months as well, particularly around growing together in the community. 

Wil: (27:47) Brilliant. Thank you very much, Karen 



Will: (27:52) Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode of the Green Element podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues and rate and review the podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. I’d love to know what has been your biggest takeaway from this conversation? What are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them too, @ge_podcast. For links and show notes for this episode, visit our website, greenelement.co.uk/podcast. Thank you again. I hope you’ll join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world.

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