Why prioritizing sustainability benefits your bottom line

Thursday, June 17, 2021

by Alyana Versolatto

Photo of Susan Uthayakumar

Two points Susan Uthayakumar (MAcc ’95) wants to make clear: Sustainability is not just a trend, and climate change is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. As president of the Global Sustainability Business Division at Schneider Electric, Uthayakumar advocates for diversity and green practices in business to not only save our environment but to stay relevant in the marketplace.

For Uthayakumar, sustainability has long been a passion, so when late last year there was an opportunity to take over the leadership of the global sustainability business unit at Schneider Electric, she went for it. At that point, she had been with the company for 16 yearsstarting in acquisition, then moving up to leadership roles in finance, energy management business and sales. Before her most recent position, Uthayakumar was the CEO for Schneider Electric Canada, which was recently selected as one of Canada's Greenest Employers, in part for their certified zero waste to landfill manufacturing plants, employee-led green team and their bold goal of sourcing 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

“At Schneider, we take sustainability very seriously. We have what we call the Schneider Sustainability Index that measures six long-term goals. The goals relate to climate, equality and society. When we looked at the Sustainable Development Goals index, we thought about all the elements that need to work and all the areas where we need to show progress.” - Susan Uthayakumar

Sustainability practices like these go hand in hand with company profitability says Uthayakumar. “When you are conscientious about your emissions, that means you are using your resources optimally. That means fewer resources and less cost.”

Technology and innovation can be powerful tools for change, with digitization being an enabler for decarbonization.

“When you digitize your operations or your data flow, what you have is a very good sense of how you’re using finite resources [for example electrical consumption]. The more we have connective products, and connective systems to drive intelligent business decisions will mean we will use fewer resources, and produce fewer emissions. The second aspect when you think about technology such as green materials or green manufacturing, it also means you can extend the life cycle of your products, which means you produce less waste.”

 “I think that all of us need to foster that innovation, whether on the business side or the technology side and especially for a university like Waterloo, which I hear being referred to as the Silicon Valley of the North. I think enabling start-ups, funding them and helping them to accelerate the innovation is very important for the future that we need to sustain.”- Susan Uthayakumar

She highlights that it’s very important for large companies to realize that the landscape has significantly accelerated the need for sustainability. Between 2010 to 2019 was the warmest decade on record, and if we remain on the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the global temperature is expected to increase by three to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century (source: United Nations). Effects like these will continue to intensify and impose acute and lasting risks for communities, businesses, and natural ecosystems if actions aren’t taken.

Many governments around the world are now moving in the right direction. As noted by the UN, by early 2021, countries representing more than 65 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 percent of the world economy, will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. The European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea, together with more than 110 other countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; China says it will do so before 2060. The University of Waterloo has also declared a climate emergency.

The bottom line is that climate action will not wreck economies or budgets. Shifting to a green economy is predicted to actually add jobs and yield tremendous economic gains.

Leaders like Uthayakumar can and have been making a difference in their industries, and others are taking notice. Uthayakumar was humbled when she was recently recognized as one of Canada's Most Powerful Women through the WXN Top 100 awards.

“What the award really represents to me is for others to see me. There’s the powerful saying, “If you see it, you can do it”, and in order to attract talent into the STEM field people have to be able to see the representation because they are hesitant to enter an area where they don’t see diversity.”

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