Spotlight Series: Q&A with Environmental Charity Partnerships Manager, Poonam Gill

We caught up with Poonam about her insights working in the environmental charity sector, as WWF’s Corporate Partnerships Manager

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

My ethnic background is Indian, my family are from the Punjab. I also identify as a British Indian woman. Iโ€™ve always had an interest in social and environmental justice so studied Geography undergrad and a Masters in Sustainability. I now work in corporate partnerships for one of the largest global environmental charities.

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

We used to go on family holidays to India every few years and as I grew older I started to recognise the impact my life has compared to that of my cousins living in the village. It inspired me to learn more about sustainability, and understand the relationship between different cultures and lifestyles and how they regard the natural environment.

Can you tell me about your current role? How did you get into the charity sector?

I work in corporate partnerships for one of the largest environmental charities, working with businesses to reduce their environmental footprint and engage with their supply chains, employees and customers on sustainability initiatives. This is the first green charity I have worked for, as I was applying for lots of roles after taking a career break to do some solo travelling, and was lucky enough to land the job!

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

My biggest success โ€“ landing the jobs that I have had so far! After I graduated, I found it difficult to get a job in sustainability and at the level for my qualifications. But it has been a great learning opportunity and each role helped me develop skills and confidence to succeed in the workplace. I especially appreciate all the friends, colleagues and mentors that help broaden my worldview, provide support and encouragement, and those who accompany you to the pub after a challenging day at work!

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/unfamiliar career path? Has it been challenging?

My parents still donโ€™t fully understand what I do, and worry that working in the green sector I will not be as financially comfortable as my siblings, who work in the legal and pharma sectors. They tried to encourage me to take a more traditional professional route, but being 2 of 4 children, I was able to persuade them that this would be a good and fulfilling career path.

Itโ€™s been so great to build a network of fellow South Asian environmentalists, who have a similar story. The challenging part is being a minority in the sector, but this is slowly improving.

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

I have โ€“ I now eat mainly a vegetarian diet and make conscious food choices as the global food system has the biggest impact on climate change and biodiversity loss. I also try not to waste where I can โ€“ whether that be food, energy, resources and buy environmentally conscious or second hand clothing and products.

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?

I think the culture of consumerism has a big impact on understanding the climate crisis. Having easy access to anything you could want at affordable prices by a click of a button is still novel, and not many people will understand the multitude of impacts. I think it’s up to businesses to be more responsible so they can help to influence everyday life choices. 

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?

If you eat meat, try to cut that down to 2/3 meals a week choosing good quality options – share veggie and vegan options with family and friends. Buy second hand when you can โ€“ it means they come preloved. Donโ€™t waste energy โ€“ turn off lights and appliances when not in use. Make gifts instead of buying them, and ask your workplace what they are doing to be a sustainable organisation. Sustainability is accessible to everyone โ€“ you just need to know where to look for information and support. 

You touched on representation and developing a POC (people of colour) network group with other charities. Can you tell me more about this and why itโ€™s particularly important for there to be more representation in the environmental industry?

The environmental crisis affects everyone on a local and global level, which means all voices need to be heard.

Itโ€™s hard to engage with issues when you donโ€™t see yourself reflected, and having diverse thoughts and perspectives, particularly in the charity sector which has a history of paternalism, is so important in taking the movement forward.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

Keep fighting. No matter what age you are, you can be an activist. Also the importance of self-care when learning/working on these issues, as they can weigh down. Lastly, your voice matters and is your power!

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

Recently, it has been the lack of response to racism. It really made me aware of power and privilege, and how it shows up in your life. More than that, it was just deeply saddening to see the effect it had on my friends, family, colleagues and community. 

Connect with Poonam on Instagram and LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Sustainable Tourism and Development Lead, Tejal Thakkar

We spoke with Tejal, about her experiences working in the sustainable development and tourism industry and transitioning from corporations to social enterprises

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am a South Asian female and my background is in hospitality and tourism.

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

For me, it was about a couple of things. Firstly, I have always thought about how to make incremental improvements to our world. I really liked the tourism industry, but because I was so entrenched in it, I could also see its flaws. So I thought, why not pick an industry and see how I can make it better serve society. That’s kind of how my initial interest in social enterprise and sustainable development began. Secondly, I really hate waste.

Can you tell me about your work in Sustainable Tourism Development and how you got into it? 

My career started in hotels (literally from the age of 16). I studied hospitality for my undergrad and worked at a big travel tech company out of university. Whilst I was at Expedia, I started to learn more about tourism development and how it can be done well or not well.

That’s when I decided to go back to uni for my masters in Tourism, Environment, and Development at King’s College London. After that, I worked for an international development consultancy where I worked on a couple of sustainable development projects. My focus now is on social enterprises in the sector.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

I don’t know about the biggest successes, but there have been a lot of learnings. I think the most important thing is to really listen to that voice inside you if it’s telling you that something is not quite right or if you are looking for more. 

Corporate jobs are cushy – they pay well and have benefits which make it hard to leave, but that’s not all there is in life. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty when trying to figure out what your passions and goals are, and I am still going through that now, but I have a lot of peace in the fact that when I think back to my corporate job (which I really liked!), I have no desire to go back. It means I am slowly moving in the right direction for me.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about switching to more sustainability-led work from family, friends or society at large?

This one is interesting to me. I think there are societal pressures to be doing something that is traditionally ‘successful’, and I have experienced them as well, even though my family is super open. For example, when deciding between two job offers earlier this year, one thing that weighed on my mind was ‘which will be easier to tell people about?’ I, obviously, was so annoyed at myself for thinking that, but it does creep up. 

Interestingly, the other thing I really had to get over was accepting the fact that prioritizing money is okay. I think often, people who are interested in purpose-driven career paths are conditioned to feel ashamed of wanting to make a decent salary. When looking for jobs and considering salaries in comparison to the cost of living in London, salary was something that factored into my decision, and that’s okay! 

If we break it down further, it’s just capitalism telling us that the only thing that should be rewarded is an endless pursuit for profit and I question why. Why should we have to accept lower salaries just because we want to do something positive for society when the โ€˜Amazonsโ€™ of the world are destroying the planet and getting rewarded for it?

Have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Yes of course! Like I said earlier, I hate waste, especially food waste! I have never really bought much and prefer to have fewer possessions, probably because I have moved around so much, but I am trying to take it one step further by exclusively buying from ethical and small businesses.

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?

I think in immigrant and minority communities, there are often a lot of other worries and issues we have to overcome.

I don’t blame people who are trying to make ends meet for not worrying about the climate crisis, because let’s be honest, they are also probably the smallest contributors to climate change.

However, South Asian communities specifically do have a lot of social and political capital.ย I think our generation has a lot of untapped potential and I do get disappointed with the general lack of social and political engagement of the youth in the South Asian community.

Culturally, we are generally taught to not ruffle feathers and to keep our heads down and work hard. Frankly, change isn’t made by not ruffling feathers. We have a lot of skills, capital, and ideas in our community, it just needs to be harnessed in the right way.

You touched on feeling like your previous consultancy work didnโ€™t give you the same amount of satisfaction or purpose – would you now say feeling purpose from your job is vital for you?

Purpose in my career is vital for me. I am not sure if it’s the workaholic American in me, but I really don’t subscribe to the ‘I work to live’ philosophy. We will, inevitably, spend a LOT of our life working, so why would I not search for something that fulfills me? 

I never want to live a life where I am watching the clock so I can leave at 5pm. I do want to be excited to get up on Monday morning. I can’t live a life where I spend 40+ hours a week just waiting for them to end – that sounds so miserable! I will say, it is important to remember that work is only part of life and whilst work is important, it’s integral that your work doesn’t come at the expense of your relationships and the rest of your life.

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?

I actually get really annoyed at the climate change rhetoric that places so much responsibility on the individual and especially on minority communities and communities in the global south. Really, we should be fighting the handful of companies who are responsible for the majority of global emissions. 

When it comes to reducing waste, I actually think that minority communities are models that the rest of the world should learn from. It’s about being resourceful rather than buying things to fit our convenience. This is actually something that South Asians are known for! 

Have you heard of โ€˜jugaadโ€™ innovation? I’ll give an example. It feels like a lot of sustainability rhetoric in the west is actually commodified. For example, we see bloggers shaming people for not having the right reusable containers or the new ‘it’ ceramic non-stick pan? In comparison, immigrant families have been saving yogurt containers to transport chole (chickpea curry) and using durable stainless steel cookware for generations!

With transport and particularly air travel being a huge contributor of carbon emissions on a global scale, do you believe tourism and travel truly can be sustainable?

Well, there are multiple parts of sustainability, right? I believe that the problem tourism helps to solve for our society is the social and economic aspects of sustainability.

Tourism, when done well, provides opportunities for people to learn about others, connects families, provides sustainable jobs for people in even the most remote parts of the world, for example. For a sustainable development practitioner, the goal is to figure out how to encourage all of those things happening whilst minimizing the environmental backlash.ย 

Also, it’s kind of a fallacy that air travel is one of the worst contributors to global carbon emissions. Human air travel contributes to around 2% of global emissions, whereas emissions from livestock alone accounts for 14.5%.ย (Gerber et al., 2013).

Recently, local tourism is becoming more and more popular. This form of tourism does involve fewer emissions and still creates the same benefits of international travel (i.e. creating community, exploration, job creation). I see this as a way forward for the tourism industry, especially with the pandemic.

Again, you’ll notice that the rhetoric around reducing emissions are very individual-focused. While there is room for improvement on the individual level, I have to ask the question as to why we aren’t going to our governments and the big oil companies and demanding incentives for greener technologies and taxes for carbon-emitting ones? That’s where I think our focus should be.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

To me, being socially and environmentally conscious should just be inherent for our generation moving forward. When making decisions about your career, about your purchases, about anything, sustainability should be on our minds. This is how we make change, by voting with our wallets.

Given that we live in a capitalist society, we can make a difference by choosing to support small businesses, to buy less, and to choose more sustainable alternatives when possible. When picking a job, even a corporate job, see what opportunities there are to get involved in CSR, understand the company’s ethos. This should be important.ย 

Being in corporate consultancy before and switching to sustainability-led social enterprises now, would you say itโ€™s just as viable and economically stable? Have you faced any challenges?

I work for a startup that is mission-driven now, but I used to work for an international development consultancy, where the company contracts with the government. Naturally, there is more stability in a job like that, especially during the uncertain times we are in right now. 

However, I think it is also harder to move up and learn more at a faster pace in those environments. I actually earn more now than I did in my old job, have more responsibility, and I am learning a ton. Sure, it’s less ‘stable’ than working for a government contractor, but I think you also have to bet on your own intuition as well as your skills and talents.

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

Ha! I am not sure if I can think of any one thing. I think learning about sustainability and social impact is a slow learning process. Unlearning mistruths that we learned as a kid and exploring more sustainable ways of living takes time and is a life-long process.