Spotlight Series: Q&A with Navneet Bassan, Pensions, Risk & Compliance Manager

We caught up with Navneet, qualified solicitor currently working at Ernst & Young in the Pensions, Risk and Compliance team about the rise in importance of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance).

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am Asian British born in the UK. I am a qualified solicitor.

Can you tell me about your career so far? What was the catalyst for you to take on ESG Pensions at EY?

I worked in a few City law firms in the early days, worked at PwC and also Thomson Reuters, I’ve been working at one of the Big 4 accountancy firms (EY) for the last five years. I no longer work in the capacity of a solicitor, since having children, I took a side step and now work in the Pensions HR Team at EY.

The UK has an investment market of roughly £8 trillion with UK pensions assets c.£3 trillion, so as a very rough estimate pensions assets are a third of investable assets. Given this proportion, switching pension investment to back the sustainability agenda is a strong lever to deliver real change and a mechanism to fund green growth. In line with the EY global commitment to tackling the climate change crisis, EY made recent changes to the investment strategy of its UK staff pension plan and as part of this introduced the EY Sustainable Fund. At present 10% of the default investment strategy is invested in the EY Sustainable Fund, a “green” fund that supports sustainable causes. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, this is only the beginning and EY is doing much more to ensure it invests its pension contributions into companies that are focused on reducing environmental impact and delivering sustainability. Watch this space!

What does your overall role at EY involve and how are you finding working on Sustainability compared to your other work?

I am the Risk & Compliance Manager for the EY in-house pensions team, so my day-to-day role involves ensuring EY remains compliant with all legal and regulatory requirements in relation to its pension arrangements within UK&I. However, I’ve recently become involved in a new cross-firm sustainability initiative created to focus on “getting our house in order” which is an aspect of EY’s Global Sustainability Strategy. So whilst EY is not only tackling sustainability in relation to services provided to external clients, it is also doing so with its own internal operations.

From a personal experience I did actually start to notice many small changes happening in our office pre-covid… Disposable cups within all EY offices were replaced with reusable cups, they ceased producing branded EY carrier bags and even dish sponges were removed from communal kitchen areas to reduce plastic microfibres in wastewater. It’s such an exciting area to be involved in at present and is a definite change from my usual day role!

Being South Asian, did you face any pressure from family, friends or society at large to choose the career path you did? Would you have done anything differently if given the opportunity again?

I didn’t feel direct pressure from my family, but I think it was the norm when I was growing up to either go for medicine, accountancy or law – so I just went for the last one given I loved English and History at School! If I had an opportunity to choose another career when growing up it would probably be around nutrition and diet but that wasn’t a well-publicised career path back in the day!

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

The biggest change I’ve made was a few years ago in changing from a petrol vehicle to a fully electric one. It’s been the best decision made in terms of being more “green” and definitely cost efficient, the only challenge has been in planning the charging points for longer journeys!

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

I don’t believe there is any form of stigma, I think it is more of a lack of understanding and knowledge of the climate crisis. For me, it really hit home when I attended a work-related conference where Lewis Pugh presented and spoke about his experiences of climate change, especially when he first swam in the waters of Antarctica compared to more recent times. He’s a very inspiring speaker and really hit the message home.

I believe more education and publicity is needed in this area and suggestions on what changes people can implement to make a difference.

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?

Everyone can take “baby steps” to make changes in their day to day lives. It doesn’t have to be costly, even just ensuring rubbish is sorted and recycled where possible or using reusable shopping bags even helps. In recent times vegan lifestyles and products have come more to the forefront, which has helped with promoting foods that have less impact on the environment, so I believe being carbon conscious is more accessible than previously. Even making a few changes can help the cause.

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

Really start making a difference now by becoming more sustainable in your day-to-day lives. When I was growing up, this wasn’t a “thing”, but now it has been brought to the forefront through the likes of many individuals and climate “influencers” trending on social media platforms (i.e. the Greta Thunberg effect). Going back to pensions, which is typically an area where apathy is a challenge particularly amongst the younger generations, recent research has shown that

Millennials are most likely to believe that a measurable ESG impact can make a difference and for their investments to reflect climate change concerns. Hopefully this will mean the younger generation are more likely to engage with their pension if they can see if has a positive impact on climate change.

Coming from a background in law and working in a major financial company, would you say a career in the environmental sector would be just as financially and economically viable and stable?

Yes I believe in this day and age, a career in the environmental sector can be just as rewarding financially as well as from a job satisfaction perspective. Many companies are jumping on the “sustainability wagon” and if you do a quick google search for jobs in the sustainability field you will see many listed. I believe the only challenge may be a lack of awareness of what is involved in these types of roles.

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

Yes of course – when on holiday in Mauritius a few years ago, I found it quite alarming when we came across so much dead coral on the beaches. We also went on a glass-bottom boat excursion, where we could see first-hand all the dead coral. When you compare this to living and healthy coral which you view when watching David Attenborough programmes, the difference is shockingly stark. While there was still some fish there, it was abundantly clear to see how much climate change had impacted a large proportion of the coral reef surrounding this beautiful island.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Climate change has been brought to the forefront in recent times, taking one example of the Australian bushfires, which I believe impacted many when you could see the devastation caused. The next step now is to take action and remember that as an individual you can make an impact by starting to make changes yourself and also educating others. The best way to do this is to “speak the language” of each generation e.g. the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (Gen Y) and the Centennials (Gen Z). Generally most people switch off when I start talking about my line of work(!), however,

I have noticed that if you can find the right hooks to discuss sustainability within the context of pensions, I have been able to engage both my parents’ generation as well as my nieces and nephews. 

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 ‘Amazons’ 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. 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 didn’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 ‘jugaad’ 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. 

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%. (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. 

Being in corporate consultancy before and switching to sustainability-led social enterprises now, would you say it’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.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Climate Change Journalist Sharlene Gandhi

We spoke to Business, Climate Change and Food Systems Journalist, Sharlene about her insights and experience covering stories from the point of view of marginalised communities

What is your ethnic and academic/professional background?

I am a Hindu Gujarati Indian, and I am a journalist with a focus on small business, climate change and food systems.

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

In my final year at Lancaster University, I was chosen for a special bootcamp-style module to attend the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s liaison-delegate meeting. Before this, I hadn’t had any specific interaction with the environmental sustainability movement, but I had always been involved in social justice and grassroots community initiatives. Going to the liaison-delegate meeting was so eye-opening because it not only revealed the science behind the climate crisis, but also all the many social, economic, cultural and community impacts it will inevitably have. That was in April of 2018, and I’ve since been enthralled with the subject, reading widely, going to talks and eventually embedding it into my journalistic practice.

Can you tell me about your career in journalism and how you got into writing about climate change and environmental injustice/race intersectionality? 

It was really a matter of luck – I had always wanted to be a journalist because I loved writing, but often struggled with the difficult question of whether to become a specialist journalist or stick to general reporting. I decided to start specialising as a climate and business journalist on a freelance basis, mostly to also be able to learn about some of the work that was being done on the ground by communities and small / micro enterprises. 

The more I researched and reported, the more I started to learn about the intersections between the climate crisis and marginalised communities and came across the term climate justice as a result. That’s been one of my key focus areas ever since, because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

I’ve been involved in writing about agricultural justice, housing inequality and land redistribution, as well as Indigenous rights. 

Find Sharlene’s Portfolio here: https://muckrack.com/sharlene_gandhi

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

For me, I’ve always been deeply inspired by the work of Indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities around the world. There is just a wealth of information to learn from them and how they have championed an approach to living that is in harmony with nature. 

My biggest successes have just been people giving me the opportunity, time and time again, to write about, speak about and explore this deeply intricate and important topic. I was super honoured to be part of shado magazine’s editorial team for their Climate Justice issue, which was published in September this year, and earlier in the year, I also researched and wrote up an investigation about the design and psychology of emission tracking apps for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. 

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

I was luckier than most in that I didn’t face any particular backlash when choosing my career path, but I think being from an immigrant family – particularly one where money wasn’t always floating around freely – means that you have financial security in the back of your mind. So while I wasn’t pushed into medicine or engineering or law, I was certainly gently encouraged to do a degree that would lead me to a job. That is how I ended up with a business degree, because it would lead to a financially stable career.

And my parents weren’t wrong – I spent the first two years of my career as a consultant, with a very healthy paycheck attached. But ultimately I wasn’t happy with myself in that role and wanted to transition into a career that meant more to me in due course. 

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

Shopping locally and from small businesses has been a large part of the shift for me. It takes more time and more effort, but at least I know that I’m contributing to someone’s wellbeing and financial stability much more directly than if I were shopping from a larger supermarket that squeezed margins for their farmers and producers to make sure the end retail price was as cheap to the consumer as possible. 

Nearly three years ago, I also gave up all fast fashion and high street shopping, favouring secondhand, vintage and charity shop purchases for clothes, accessories and shoes. That hasn’t been easy, particularly because of the convenience and speed that fast fashion affords you as a consumer, not to mention the attractive pricing. But for me giving up fast fashion is crucial not just to planetary health, but also to climate justice. It signals to these companies that we can’t put up with the terrible conditions that they expect their garment workers to produce in.

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 wouldn’t say there is a stigma more than there is a lack of understanding. But that is highly ironic because a lot of the things that South Asian families do naturally are sustainable. It generally starts with low-income, immigrant families championing these practices, with the most famous example being using containers repeatedly to store curries and daals. South Asian cooking often involves using entire fruits and vegetables in order to minimise waste. South Asian culture is slower and more deliberate than capitalistic, time-driven Western culture, and a slower lifestyle impacts our surroundings less. South Asian food practice has always been about buying local and supporting grassroots shop owners, where possible.

Religions and cultures that are prominent in South Asia favour a lifestyle that works in conjunction with nature as opposed to extracting from it.

So, in other words, sustainability comes to South Asian communities easier than we might think, but the way that modern day sustainability is wrapped up and packaged makes them feel like it’s far away and unattainable. 

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?

Naturally, being sustainable is supposed to be accessible to everybody, because it actually requires us to live slowly, more locally and more deliberately. A plant-based or vegetarian diet can be cheaper than a meat-based diet. Shopping locally shortens the supply chain from raw materials / ingredients to the final consumer, which reduces the end price and makes sure that the original producers are adequately compensated for their effort.

However, the marketisation and mainstream branding that has now been attached to sustainability has meant that there has been a premium price attached to it, which has also in turn made it unaffordable for a lot of people to make sustainable choices. Starting small and stripping back your routine is a good place to start though, rather than thinking you need to invest in additional products or services at a cost to you. 

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

Personally I think younger generations are much more knowledgeable about social justice and environmental sustainability than we are, simply because they don’t have a choice. So there is probably more than we can learn from them than they can learn from us!

I think for those interested in making a difference, I would advise starting small. Start with yourself and your sphere of control, extend that to your social circle, then to any impact you can make in your local community through conscious consumption, volunteering and raising awareness. Only then can you learn about the issues on the ground, on a grassroots level, which help you understand the system at large and why it functions the way it does. Otherwise, starting with the system and its flaws can seem too monumental and overwhelming to be able to make a tangible change. 

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

I’m just humbled that I get to do so many wonderful things and continue spreading the word about sustainability! In the last couple of years, I’ve been so honoured to speak at the Almeida Theatre, at Global Action Plan, at Amnesty International, for IKEA, and for various smaller organisations looking to educate and inspire change. I’ve been able to interview amazing people, including Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Sana Javeri Kadri from Diaspora Co.

In one of my earliest pieces of work, while I was working with the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, I got to interview Arctic climate scientist Dr Oran Young. He has dedicated his whole life to the study of climate and spoke so passionately about the links to aspirational lifestyle and the worsening climate crisis. It really hit home then that this is more than scientific. It’s about how we define happiness and success. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

For South Asians, there is an absolute wealth of literature to delve into in terms of prominent writing about environmentalism, anti-capitalism and racism. Two perhaps obvious voices are Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy – they give a great introduction, in the content of South Asia, of why environmental sustainability needs to tie into social justice.

Find some of Sharlene’s work here:

Supply Chain Transparency: https://mailchimp.com/courier/article/building-transparent-supply-chain/

Carbon Tracking Apps: https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/app-design/how-carbon-tracking-apps-are-designed-to-foster-responsibility-and-why-this-might-be-flawed/

How Green is UK’s New Deal?: https://www.ourstosave.com/feature?id=ckda46h78000p07234osxdkme

IKEA project: https://lifeathome.ikea.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IKEA_Life_At_Home_Report_2020-2.pdf

Follow Sharlene on Instagram and LinkedIn