Spotlight Series: Q&A with Carbon Net-Zero Researcher & Consultant, Vichitra Chandra

We caught up with carbon net-zero and ESG specialist, Vichitra about her diverse cross-sector experience

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

My mum is a British Indian from a traditional Punjabi family brought up in greater Manchester, and my dad is a south Indian mix of konkani and Telugu, from Hyderabad, India. This is to say I have a mixed Indian background, with different india cultural influences growing up. I lived in India during my schooling years and moved back to the UK permanently when I was around 16. 

I pursued Physics at University upto a MSc, after which I spent half a year trying out teaching. I moved into the world of finance, specifically investments and became interested in the growing world of ESG, sustainability and impact investments. 

Since then, I have been working as an independent consultant for environmental and data-focused non profits and other companies, using my research and analytical skills to research industry’s transition to carbon net-zero in light of our national targets. 

Additionally, I work with entrepreneurs and start-ups helping their corporate development, marketing and fundraising strategies, with a particular interest in ethical, sustainable and environmental-focused businesses, such as ethical fashion, financial inclusion and environmental data.  

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

Growing up in India helped me realise from an early age the scarcity and unequal distribution of essential resources such as water, energy and food, the impact of the lack thereof. I was brought up to be mindful of consumption, minimise wastage, reduce unnecessary usage and reuse where possible. The first time I realised just how unsustainable we are was at University, when perfectly edible whole packs of food were routinely discarded with no second thought by my housemates! Why? “because the veg is wonky, because the packet said it expired yesterday, I don’t fancy that today, blah blah blah”. I was horrified. 

I noted how excessive and consumption-focused society is and our blissful ignorance (intentional or not) around it. I began realising that our day-to-day activities, consumption choices and thus how industry runs and business is carried out are entirely unsustainable and at odds with the ever increasing consequences of climate-change we continue to face.

I wanted to be a part of the “green revolution” and a generation that demands better, more supply-chain transparency and care for our planet and communities by shifting from short-term financial gains to longer-term wider considerations. 

We live in a world where making more money is considered an indication of success and prosperity, even if at the expense of nature and our environment. Inspiring work has been done to raise awareness and bring to light how unsustainably we currently live, but there is so much more to be done!

I especially believe in capital being used as a force for real change, and focus on the economic benefits of sustainability, especially disproving myths about the negative financial impacts of employing sustainable practices. I am inspired to use my background in science and finance to communicate this to a wider set of audiences and stakeholders to catalyze further decarbonisation, sustainable business practice uptake and investing for the greater good. 

Can you tell me a bit about your work and how you got into it? 

While working in investment advisory, I worked with investors and asset managers wanting to create impact through their investments. Here, I was introduced to the work of ESG, impact and sustainable investing. Through this work, I began working with IB1, researching and bringing together industry stakeholders harnessing data to make strategic and financial decisions in light of our net-zero carbon targets. 

Sectors I’ve covered include renewable energy, insurance, recycling biotechnology, space-data for climate change, and environmental start-ups. I did not follow a clear path to where I am now, but using my broad set of skills and experiences, and my passion for sustainability and impact investing, I have managed to find work and forge a career in the environmental and sustainability space. There’s a lot more to do and learn though! 

The challenge was finding like-minded organisations and individuals that you can learn from and work with, while also feeling like your work has a positive impact. I continue to look for further projects and groups to expand my work. 

Are there any top tips you can share for people wanting to invest in green tech/ funds but unsure where or how to start?

Through initiatives such as open banking and continued digitalisation of our world, investing has never been easier and more accessible to the average consumer. Many platforms offer ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing and you will see more and more such products due to their growing demand. Some platforms include Nutmeg, wealthify, Pension Bee and many have the easy option to invest in ESG portfolios. If you want to directly invest in clean technology, check out Thrive Renewables, who offer individuals and businesses easy access to investing in renewables in the UK. 

Additionally, investing apps such as Hargreaves Lansdown, Moneybox and others allow you to pick your own stocks (say, if you’ve heard of this really cool cleantech company and you want in!). If you don’t have an ISA, get one! Make sure it’s a stocks and shares ISA (you can use the above mentioned investment platforms for this) where you can either choose a managed portfolio or pick your own stocks (if you feel confident enough!) Familiarise yourself with how the bonds market works, and read up on various online resources to help you get started. And remember, google is your friend and a fantastic teacher.  

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

My biggest success to date is perhaps finding fulfilment and pride in my work since becoming self-employed, working directly within the environmental sector and with inspirational start-ups building impactful businesses.

My biggest learning to date is just how much more learning there is to do, with many people, organisations and countries making huge strides in the sustainability sector — I want to learn about and speak to them all!

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about your career choice from family, friends or society at large?

I am fortunate to have supportive family and friends around me. Sustainability and impact investment is growing in importance, perhaps mainly due to my generations’ desire to do good with their money, so the opportunities in this sector are ever increasing and better remunerated. I would say the biggest challenge is the older generation and their thinking, especially their dismissiveness and scepticism towards sustainability, and the need to make changes not just for financial returns, but environmental, social and other reasons. 

My family continues to encourage me to pursue the intersection of finance with the environment, so I am spared the backlash! That said, I have been lucky. A few years ago my sister finally decided to pursue her life-long passion by leaving her career as a surgeon to work for the Environmental Agency — an inspiration to myself, my family, her friends and colleagues. It was initially hard for my parents and other elders to understand why, but they eventually understood and supported her wholeheartedly. She still gets the odd comment from the family and acquaintances, but following her heart and becoming a key spokesperson for the environment is worth more than any uncle or aunty comments. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

I think little things go a long way. I find that sustainable, responsible and conscious living can be achieved through small behavioural changes. Although buying sustainably sourced or ethical products is still not economically achievable for many, I am a strong believer in market forces.

Sustainable practices will become the norm only if there is strong demand for it, and as consumers, expect more and better of our industries. 

Taking an extra minute of your day to appropriately recycle your waste instead of throwing it all into the main bin, supporting your local high-street for locally sourced every-day items (some even have delivery services through apps!) and switching to buying products which have been sustainably sourced, are some of the smallest ways we can address unsustainable living.

Even small things such as turning off lights or using energy saving bulbs, checking if your “expired” groceries are truly expired (use your eyes and nose — millions of years of evolution has gone into refining our senses for survival!) and being conscious of the amount of single-use plastics you use. I love using apps to help guide small changes, such as JouleBug, SDGsinaction and Waterwise pledges to name a few. Be vocal about it, and wear terms meant to insult you such as “SJW”, “eco terrorist” and “environment militant” with pride! 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

South Asian communities are driven to achieve financial success, I believe more so than others. Our idea of “success” is tied to the “developed world” and is warped by this concept of excess (e.g. quantity over quality), and we are obsessed with attaining “developed” status much the same way the West did through rapid industrialisation (and we know how unsustainable, polluting and damaging that was and continues to be…). 

The challenge is to change the mindset that we can attain success only by these means, and what that “success” looks like. We have smarter, more sustainable solutions to polluting sectors such as infrastructure, transport, buildings and materials. We can solve these problems by supporting and investing in cleaner technologies and sustainable business practices, and discontinuing supporting businesses that are not. 

You touched on feeling a great moral obligation to the future generation. For those who donโ€™t know, why should people care about the climate emergency?

A moral obligation to the future generation is only one reason to care about the climate emergency. The effects of climate change are being felt here and now. We do not own this world, and we share it with many other living beings. It is selfish to carry on as is.

For our generation, and especially those who are privileged to have an education, I feel it is our duty with the information and resources we have at our fingertips to undo the unsustainable existence we lead. 

If decisive action is not taken now, climate change is capable of eroding the very foundations of life — access to food, water, shelter, etc. we enjoy today. We owe it to future generations to inherit a world that they can thrive in. 

Of course, there is an economic argument for the climate emergency also, with adverse weather conditions and eroding ecosystems leading to constrained supply chains and increased prices, sustainability gives longer term success through enabling financial stability and resilience in the face of climate change. If we continue to take more than is given, we are damaging our own home and livelihoods. The expression “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” comes to mind.

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

Agreed, truly sustainable living is not attainable just yet and is inaccessible to many. Although sustainable living is perceived as costly, often the sustainable solution works out cheaper in the long run but the lack of upfront costs is a challenge.

Cost is one challenge, another is access.

Some sustainable solutions require more time, resource and expertise to achieve, which may not always be available or attainable. Solutions that are efficient, accessible and cost effective need to be further developed, invested and commercialised, and we look to the government and industry to stop dragging their feet. I strongly believe in the power we have as consumers to demand more from our industries and leaders; so find sustainable and ethical alternatives and stop supporting polluting and unethical companies and industries not doing enough. 

Other smaller steps we can take include taking an extra minute to separate your land-waste and recycling, stopping single-use plastics, supporting locally sourced products and ethical businesses, buying an electric car instead of a petrol/diesel car, switching to a green tariff with your energy supplier, and pulling your support for polluting multinationals. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Is it a viable industry to enter?

Of course! Our generation’s biggest challenge is to carve a new way of life. There’s much work to be done to overhaul an entire way of living including localised resource management, supply chains, behavioural and cultural beliefs, investments and financing, ecological and environmental impact, and so on. 

One thing is certain, things cannot carry on as “business as usual”, and significant impact is made from those willing to step outside the comfort zone of the “known” and embrace the challenge of carbon net-zero.

It is currently considered a stand-alone industry, but sustainability will become an integral part of any industry and function. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

Stories about the consequences of climate change around the world deeply impact me every day. Every news story about a bleached coral reef, devastating droughts, farmers ending their lives over one too many failed harvests, unexpected floods leading to loss of life and its long-term impacts on people and communities… it is hard not to be. 

However, success stories such as growing renewable energy uptake, banning and regulation of plastic uses by various governments, revival of “farmers markets” and local produce, climate change insurance products, ESG investing, and net-zero legislation are all positive steps being taken to mitigate and adapt to climate-change. 

These steps and those leading the charge on the climate conversation serve as an inspiration to tackle my generation’s biggest challenge. Well… that and pandemics, shrinking economies, brexits and the death of tv to name a few. 

Is there anything else youโ€™d like to share? 

It is important to remember that a little goes a long way. Small changes on their own may not seem like much, but together we can make real change. The internet is a wonderful resource and privilege — use it.

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