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Meet the Eco-Business A-Listers: Simon Bennett, shipping decarboniser

Simon Bennett was one of Asia Pacific’s biggest agitators for low-carbon shipping in 2019, hence his selection for the Eco-Business A-List of the region’s most influential corporate sustainability executives. In this interview, Bennett talks about why his job is so easy, radical decarbonisation, role models, and a penchant for Scottish whisky.

Simon Bennett’s job is complex, but it is also the easiest job in the world, he says.

He is general manager of sustainable development for The China Navigation Company (CNCo), the deep sea shipping arm of John Swire & Sons, the private arm of Hong Kong and London-headquartered conglomerate Swire Group. And he performs the same role for Swire Pacific Offshore, the offshore marine support division of Swire Pacific, the public part of Swire Group. 

He has worked for these companies, both at sea and onshore, for more than 35 years, the last 11 running the company’s sustainability operations.

It was the vociferous Brit’s push for the decarbonisation of his company, and by turns the shipping industry as a whole, that qualified him for the inaugural Eco-Business A-List, a who’s who of the most influential corporate sustainability executives in Asia Pacific who have done the most to make business less harmful for people and planet over the last 12 months.

In this interview with Eco-Business, Bennett talks about why he chose a career in sustainability, the hardest thing about this job, the question sustainability executives should be asking themselves this year, and whether he thinks he’ll ever be replaced by a robot. 

So Simon, what sparked your interest in sustainability?

I’ve always believed in it. I ran away to sea at 17. Then I came back ashore at 21 and did a degree in environmental science at the University of Easy Access [the nickname for the University of East Anglia (UEA), so-called at the time because of a reputation for accepting students with low grades] in Norwich, where the Dean of the School of Environmental Science was the guy who discovered seafloor spreading; he showed that the earth’s tectonic plates beneath the sea are moving around.

UEA was one of the first universities that taught environmental science, and is a world-leading place of study in natural and anthropogenic climate change. It was a very varied degree—you could pick the modules you wanted, and I picked all the wet and windy stuff, oceanography, meteorology, environmental hazards and the like.

98 per cent of shipping’s environmental footprint comes from burning fossil fuels. We’ve got to stop doing that. We have to radically decarbonise.

Simon Bennett, general manager of sustainable development, The China Navigation Company

Plus, I’ve always believed in doing the right thing, even when no-one’s looking. I guess that comes from my Christian upbringing.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

There isn’t a hardest thing, because I love the job. I’m over retirement age but I’ve carried on. I’m 63, and people generally get put on the euthanasia bus at the age of 60 in our industry.

I was speaking to the chairman of CNCo the other day in Hong Kong and I told him that I had the best job in the world. Senior management believes we should be doing all this [sustainability] stuff, and millennials are joining us because of what we do. Everybody loves me, and everybody loves and supports what we do across the entire range of sustainability issues. Which is why it’s a really satisfying and easy job.

What’s the most important thing you’ve done this year?

Well, the last important thing I’ve done in the last couple of years was at the United Nations Environment Assembly [the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment] in Nairobi. There were numerous tents at the event that had a variety of environmental themes, many of them concerning ocean plastics. So I walked up to a guy from SPREP (the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme), and I said: ‘How can we help you fix this?’

CNCo has container ships that bring finished goods, for instance Barbie dolls and printer cartridges wrapped in plastic, to the Pacific islands. The cargo is then discharged, and we take the empty containers back to the rim to load more finished goods. We are clearly part of the problem, so we needed to be part of the solution. 

Many Pacific island nations lack the infrastructure or finances to handle waste properly. So we struck an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with SPREP to fill those empty containers—loaned at no cost—with recyclable waste and ship back them back to ports where the waste can be legally and responsibly recycled. The MOU is called the Moana Taka Partnership, and it’s making a big difference.

What’s the biggest question sustainability chiefs should be asking themselves this year?

In my sector, shipping, 98 per cent of our environmental footprint comes from burning fossil fuels in ships’ internal combustion engines. We’ve got to stop doing that. We have to radically decarbonise—whether that’s by using sails, biofuels, methanol or whatever. There has to be a way. And that’s the biggest question we should be asking ourselves, and then take action—notwithstanding, of course, that shipping and aviation are excluded from the Kyoto and Paris climate agreements.

What’s the most effective way to persuade your CEO to take sustainability seriously?

I work for a 203 year-old family-owned business, where the senior management are able to, and do, take a longer-term view. They already believe it [in sustainability]. So when I asked, ‘Can we recycle our ships?’ which involves employing a monitoring team, running independent audits, and potentially losing up to 8 per cent of the cash price of what we sell in order to recycle responsibly, the answer tends to be: ‘Why are you asking us? Just go and do it.’

Everything can be replaced with a robot. But I think we’ll [sustainability executives] be towards the tail-end rather than go first.

We’re doing it [sustainability] for what Sir Adrian Swire [the Swire group’s former chairman] called ‘both the general public good and enlightened self-interest’. Essentially, we’ll be more successful by being sustainable and responsible, as we have lower staff attraction and retention costs and lowered risk (of being attacked by non-government organisations). And it’s just the right thing to do.

If you could start your role again, what would you do differently?

I would have pushed for a bigger team earlier. I was working on my own for a while, and during the global financial crisis my department became shared between the two shipping companies. With a bigger team, I feel I could have achieved more, earlier.

My advice [to other sustainability executives] is, don’t be afraid to ask for more resources. I met the head of [Malaysian conglomerate] Sime Darby, when they set up their sustainability team 10 years ago. There was one of him. Within three years, after being targeted by NGOs, there were 40 of them.

Who’s your sustainability role model?

Paul Polman [the former chief executive of Unilever] is a terribly facile and easy answer—everyone nominates him. So I won’t (notwithstanding that he been a pillar of light for sustainable business).

I’d say my role model is Jonathon Porritt. He was previously the UK chairman of [green group] Friends of the Earth, he also chaired the Green Party [of England and Wales], and founded Forum for the Future [a non-profit that offers advice on sustainability planning to companies].

Friends of the Earth was around when I was at university. and they were continually telling businesses that they mustn’t do this or that—but none of them would listen. So Porritt founded Forum for the Future [in 1996], and said ‘Ok, now we’re on your side’, and since then has worked with companies to find the value in sustainability.

Nobody’s perfect—not even sustainability folk. What’s your unsustainable guilty pleasure?

Drinking sea-freighted whisky imported from Scotland. I have been known to throw whisky parties every once in a while.

Why will you never be replaced by a robot?

I’m sure I could be, ultimately; the graveyard is full of indispensable people. I think lawyers will go first, followed by estate agents—if they’re not already on their way there. Everything can be replaced with a robot. But I think we’ll be towards the tail-end rather than go first.

Which sustainability buzzword could you live without?

Everything which is environmentally responsible and sustainable is supposedly ‘green’. It’s a lazy definition.

Also, I hate it when people say they want to ‘save the environment’. A cess pit is “an environment”, but you don’t want to save that, do you? That’s lazy shorthand.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 11-year climate deadline to reduce emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Will we make it, or are we doomed?

We’re not going make it in 11 years, no. But that shouldn’t stop us doing everything we can today to reduce global warming to 2.9, 2.8 or 2.7 degrees Celsius [by the end of the century].

But there’s insufficient commitment so far, because climate change is a chronic issue, not an acute issue. Sea levels are going to rise here [Singapore] by a millimetre by 2020—so who cares? By 2100, sea levels will rise by a metre, and that might faze people a bit.

Every ship now has life boats. The Titanic sank and killed 1,500 rich people just like that. The acute issues such as this, people will fix, and quickly. But with chronic issues, it’s much more difficult to get traction—the boiling frog syndrome.

Simon Bennett was one of nine sustainability executives selected for the EB A-List this year. Read our other interviews with the A-Listers here

Eco-Business will be calling for nominations for the 2020 A-List next September. Do you know a corporate sustainability leader who is really moved the needle for their business and industry? Bear them in mind for our next call for nominations.

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