Learn about how Dr Sarah Peers’ career change led her to developing Spirax-Sarco’s One Planet: Engineering with Purpose sustainability strategy.
Dr Sarah Peers, Group Head of Sustainability at Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc Sarah holds an MA (First Class Honours) from the University of St Andrews, a Doctorate from the University of Oxford and a PGCE from Durham University. After a period teaching Geography at the Cheltenham Ladies College, she made a career change and took on the challenge of heading the corporate communications function at Spirax-Sarco Engineering, as Group Corporate Communications Manager and, later, Head of Group Corporate Communications. A strong advocate of sustainability, in July 2020, Sarah was appointed Group Head of Sustainability at Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc. Since taking up this role Sarah has led the review, refresh and relaunch of the Company’s sustainability strategy ‘One Planet: Engineering with Purpose’.
Tell me a bit about Spirax-Sarco Engineering’s approach to sustainability
Our Company Purpose is ‘to create sustainable value for all stakeholders as we engineer a more efficient, safer and sustainable world’ and, for over 100 years, our core aim has been to make our customers’ industrial processes more efficient, with a particular focus on energy efficiency. So sustainability has always been inherent in our DNA. But over those 100+ years we have grown significantly as an organisation in our understanding of sustainability: what it means to us and what it means to our customers. The language, for example, has matured. In the past, conversations with customers may have been focused on the financial benefits from saving energy, but now they are framed around reducing carbon footprint. Internally, we focus on ensuring that our own operations are as efficient and sustainable as possible, and we aim to have a positive impact in our communities. Operating sustainably also means demanding high standards throughout our supply chain. Engineers have the skills and tools to innovate and make the world a better place and, as a leading FTSE 100 Company, we have a responsibility to leave the world better than we found it.
Engineering firms have huge potential to enact positive environmental change – but how can this align with business goals? Is there a choice between profit and planet?
The trends towards decarbonisation and improved industrial sustainability provide opportunities for business growth. Both our traditional products and also the new products that we’re innovating to help with sustainability, create sales opportunities with our customers – but at Spirax-Sarco Engineering, we genuinely are focusing on sustainability because we believe it is the right thing to do for all our stakeholders. We are incredibly fortunate to be a growing business and that allows us to invest in sustainability. The commercial position of strength also brings with it the responsibility to drive change and help bridge the gap until smaller companies can switch to greener technologies. Greenwashing is undoubtedly an issue in our sector.
How can companies communicate their green initiatives honestly?
It really is about authenticity. You have to look at what is materially important for your business as you can’t focus on absolutely everything – a clear-eyed look at what we can change is vital. And, if you don’t reach a target, be honest about why something hasn’t been achieved and explain why. It’s not about just telling positive stories, but being realistic about the challenges. In this way, you can demystify the process for other companies at the start of their journey and help reduce any undue anxiety around ESG initiatives.
What led you to the engineering sector?
My background is in academia, after which I went into teaching. I had been doing that for about 2 years when I was approached by Spirax Sarco Engineering as they were looking for someone with strong writing skills. At that time, I didn’t really know anything about engineering or corporate communications – but went for a two-week internship and was offered a role. So it was my specific skills that transferred over to be applied to an engineering sector role – not any technical training. If I’ve learned one thing from my career, it is the importance of being open to opportunities and recognising where your abilities can be used. Engineering is not just for ‘technical’ people, it needs many skill sets.
What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders UK?
When I was Head of Corporate Communications I helped to establish our first sustainability Strategy, and was in charge of community engagement initiatives. Given my background in academia and teaching, I believe strongly that education is one of the most effective means by which people can change their lives – it opens doors, develops skills and changes how they perceive the world. So I was looking for a partner that shared our values. With Engineers Without Borders UK, it was immediately clear that they recognised the importance of upskilling and education, and that they put sustainability at the core of their mission. Their ethos of training the next generation of engineers was a natural fit with our ambitions.
How do you work with Engineers Without Borders UK now?
As well as donations, providing judges for the Engineering for People Design Challenge, and participating in panel discussions, some of our colleagues have recently completed a pilot ‘Reshaping Engineering’ programme to develop globally responsible engineering skills.
Has your involvement influenced your work?
Working with Engineers Without Borders UK really reinforced the need to have engineers that are trained to understand that the decisions they are making and the things that they are doing impact the planet. It’s not just about the mechanics of engineering but its wider impact. The reach of the Design Challenge makes Engineers Without Borders UK really unique in terms of their impact on the next generation of engineers. As part of our One Planet strategy, we launched an Education Fund which includes targets around improving diversity in engineering, which mirrors our ambitions to make the sector more inclusive and reflective of all the communities that are impacted by the decisions of engineers.