With 20 years’ experience and a global network of project partners, we work with our clients to deliver high quality solutions that ensure immediate, positive impact on the world’s natural capital.
Who knew that addressing an airport technology company’s global carbon footprint could simultaneously “turn up the nature volume” in destroyed mangroves, protect Indian villages from elephants, and inspire traditionally rote-taught schoolchildren with new digital education experiences? We spoke to Amber Harrison, Director of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility at SITA, about the climate action programmes that are engaging staff and stakeholders while improving lives around the world.
In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practices, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Amber Harrison and SITA at the bottom of this article.
Rosie Helson (RH): Tell us about SITA’s corporate responsibility and sustainability programme – what are its major objectives and priorities?
Amber Harrison (AH): As a global business working in almost every country and territory around the world, we want to reduce our impact while contributing to bigger societal and environmental objectives. We have a focus on climate change, gender equality and education - all things that contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
We provide IT solutions for aviation, so we have our own large footprint from travel. We collaborate with airlines and airports and sometimes we need to be physically there. To address this, we adopted an internal carbon levy and started charging the business a carbon price per tonne for air travel. We’re quite lucky that our air travel is captured through a central system which enables accurate reporting. That levy goes into a fund which I manage, which goes towards our climate action programmes.
RH: What made you get into the corporate sustainability field?
AH: For me, my personal driver is being able to look in the mirror and say I’ve done something that’s made a difference to somebody somewhere. I was brought up in a sustainable way – as a child we had a smallholding with animals, we grew our own vegetables, made our own clothes. I gained a passion for creating positive impacts on the planet and decided to apply this within my work. So, with a background in branding and communications, I did some work and put forward the business case to address our impacts at SITA. I recognised that the aviation industry was going to be facing some challenges in the future, I mapped the trends and what other companies were doing, and undertook a Masters in Integrated Environmental Management. It’s been a terrific privilege to take SITA on this journey.
RH: Can you tell us a bit more about SITA’s programmes?
AH: When I was looking at partners to work with to address our carbon footprint, Natural Capital Partners stood out in sharing our goals and really understanding what we needed in terms of transparent reporting. We selected two carbon finance projects in Indonesia and India, and also support ‘catalyst’ projects that deliver impacts outside of carbon finance.
We kicked off our first programmes last year, preserving the habitat of the endangered Borneo orangutan through a project which protects forest from conversion to palm oil plantations. We’ve also committed to planting 50,000 mangroves to protect biodiversity and help prevent coastal erosion.
The project we support in India delivers solar power into communities through SELCO. We’ve helped bring solar power to about 7,500 households, giving families affordable, safe and clean access to energy and enabling small businesses to work more effectively. Additionally, we’ve created digital classrooms for 37 schools across Tamil Nadu, providing children with access to educational content through a hard drive and TV, all powered by roof-top solar panels.
RH: And what do you find works well in terms of engaging your staff with these programmes?
AH: Storytelling: whether written or visual, it’s absolutely key, and there are plenty of stories to tell about the communities we are supporting. The messages come across most strongly face-to-face, so we use opportunities like company meetings. We also use videos, blogs, Yammer (our internal social network), and we find that interactive platforms work well so we use quizzes, polls and word clouds. We might ask staff “how many miles do you think we travelled last year?”, and “how many tonnes of CO2 is that?” And then we can tell them what we’re doing to address it.
We also use a social media aggregator that allows influencers within the business to share our climate action and sustainability stories on their own platforms, saying how proud they are to work for an organisation that supports these projects. Through that we build reach and depth while engaging staff; we have a lot of people across the world involved in helping us communicate.
This year, we made a shortlist of our next carbon credit projects and then asked employees to vote for their favourite on World Environment Day. The winning projects were around access to clean water for children. It’s really powerful to link an individual’s choice to a real-life project. We also included a question at the end to find out what they think we could do as a business to further improve our sustainability performance – it’s always good to get a fresh perspective.
Personal stories from our projects make the impacts tangible – it makes our commitment and sense of responsibility and care real to the people in our offices. That’s the kind of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.
RH: What was it like to visit SITA’s mangrove planting project in Indonesia?
AH: One of the most striking things for me was the silence. Fish farms destroyed the original mangroves and then became derelict. When you walk onto that land, you hear no birds, you hear no insects, there’s nothing. That was the first time I’ve not heard those noises in a rural setting.
As you walk closer to where mangrove restoration has already taken place, it’s like somebody turns up the nature volume. And you suddenly realise what’s missing.
It was lovely to see the dedication of the local partners on the ground and the Natural Capital Partners’ team members who came with us. And it was a pleasure to meet some community members who are involved in the planting, knowing that there’s real community investment in the success of the programme.
RH: And what about your visit to the SELCO solar project in India?
AH: When we visited communities in Bangalore, we asked about the changes they’d experienced through solar energy. They said “all the street lights are great.” And we asked “how so? So you can travel safely?” – “Yes” – “So you can see where you’re going?” – “Absolutely” – “And what else?” – “It stops the elephants!” They’d had problems with elephants trampling through the villages causing damage, so the lights are a low impact way to protect them.
Visiting one of the rural health clinics was inspirational. Solar energy is powering essential machines that separate blood and fridges containing vaccines and medicines: things we take for granted which are vital for health and well-being.
RH: Are you able to share some of SITA’s plans for 2019 and beyond?
AH: The aviation industry - the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) - has set goals for carbon neutral growth by 2050, so we’re ensuring our approach to climate action will contribute towards a more sustainable aviation industry.
We’re continuing our commitment to reducing our environmental impact. For example, our travel offset programmes will be the employee-selected initiatives around access to clean water. The first is a water filter project in Guatemala benefiting 56 schools, and delivering over 1.5m litres of clean water. It means that children can continue their education without sickness or health issues. We’ll follow that with a similar programme in Africa.
RH: What advice do you have for young professionals beginning their career in corporate sustainability?
AH: It’s an incredible time to get into sustainability. Sustainability is huge, so figure out what aspect of it you enjoy, what interests you and what you can relate to most, whether it’s environmental auditing, communication, sustainable packaging supply chains, or innovation.
Remember that the transferable skills and qualities you have – curiosity, project management, insight, knowledge, negotiation – are great tools to take with you whichever branch you go into.
The other thing I’d recommend is looking at IEMA – the Institute of Environmental Management Association – it has a good career framework which will help guide you. They are a fantastic group of people to meet, to talk to, to share experiences, so peer learning is great too.
One thing I am fairly sure you will find is that as you start on the sustainability journey, you’ll see lots of other things that excite you.
About Amber Harrison FIEMA, CMgr
Amber Harrison is Director, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, at SITA, a global IT and telecommunications provider to the air transport industry. Since 2009, she has been responsible for the development and implementation of SITA’s global CSR strategy. Under her direction, the company has implemented an environmental management system, established an internal carbon levy, signed the United Nations Global Compact, begun CSR & Sustainability reporting, and has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals as a key aspect of the sustainability strategy.
Prior to this position, Amber held a number of roles in communications, marketing and design, latterly heading SITA’s brand team. She has also run her own successful freelance business.
Amber holds Masters degrees in Integrated Environmental Management, and Marketing. In addition, she is a Chartered Manager, and a Fellow of IEMA. She is also a member of the Conference Board Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Council and the Edie Sustainability Leaders Group.
SITA is the IT provider for the air transport industry, and is one of the most internationally diverse companies, serving over 200 countries and territories. Today, SITA does business with nearly every airline and airport in the world and provides border management solutions to more than 40 governments. Working with all the stakeholders, SITA helps the industry achieve operational efficiencies and deliver a seamless passenger journey.
SITA’s commitment to responsible business includes understanding and acting on the effect of climate change from its operations. In 2018, Amber headed an initiative to introduce an internal carbon levy to contribute towards mitigating the impacts of business air travel, through the use of carbon credits and sustainable development programmes. Currently projects are operational in Borneo, India and Guatemala that support reforestation, community development, renewable energy and access to clean water.