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With sustainability, change can happen with one individual

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Kristina Bull is a Partner at QSA Partners, a B Corp consultancy with a mission to help organisations implement circular economy business models. A project professional with a focus on sustainability, she currently advises clothing brands and retailers on how to become more sustainable.

Project journal Editor Emma De Vita recently sat down with Kristina for an episode the APM Podcast of the to find out about her work on sustainability. Below is an edited extract of their conversation.

APM Podcast: Tell us about your project management career and how you’ve come to work in sustainability?

Kristina Bull: I was two-thirds of my way through becoming a lawyer in a large corporate firm and then just had an epiphany that I didn’t want to become a lawyer. A job came up at an organisation called WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme). I joined WRAP in a legal capacity, doing their contracts and things like that. The more I found out about the business, the more I realised that they were doing some incredible work to change the way businesses operate and getting them to work collectively together on sustainability. There were reorganisations and I applied to be project manager, which seemed much more interesting than what I was doing before.

Tell us more about the work you did at WRAP.

The work I was doing was about bringing industries together. So I worked with the hospitality sector, bringing the whole sector together to make change collectively, and I then applied that approach to the construction industry. That meant getting the construction industry in its entirety – architects, designers, construction, builders – to improve the way in which they collectively do business so that everyone is working in the same direction, rather than an architect designing something that the builder can’t build and therefore wasting significant resources. The work was built around creating voluntary agreements, so setting targets for the industry and then collectively getting them to work together to reduce those impacts on a project, business and then industry level. Once that first business stepped over the line and said, “Yes, we’re going to do this”, it became a bit of a domino effect, because everybody wanted to stay at the forefront of leading the change.

How did you then shift from WRAP to where you are now? And could you give us an idea of some of the projects you’ve worked on?

So I moved from WRAP and set up my own business doing project management within sustainability. For example, one of our clients is HS1, or High Speed 1. We wrote their sustainability strategy, which was very well received by industry. Off the back of that strategy development, they were invited to run workshops at COP26. So another arm of what we did was delivering their workshop at COP26. Lots of the other work we do is very much focused around implementing circular business models. I predominantly work with clothing brands or retailers.

Can you tell us about Cotton Lives On?

Cotton Lives On is a programme that fits within the circular economy in that it repurposes cotton once it’s not able to be repaired or resold. The project takes cotton clothing that’s donated from either brands or consumers. Then it goes through processes and that product is turned into a roll mat, which is then donated to a charity or humanitarian project. I’ve been the Programme Lead for that. Our client, Cotton Incorporated, approached us and said they wanted to launch the programme. We had to look at whether it was viable and whether there was anything already happening in the UK. A lot of the work entailed doing research on other programmes, interviewing brands to find out if this was something that they would be interested in and going back to strategy – what are their strategic targets and would this fit in

As a project professional, how have you been able to transfer between sectors?

If you’re on budget, to time – if you have those principles underpinning what you do – those skills are absolutely transferable across any project. You must have a good ability to track your budget, and time management is key. If you have those two aspects, on top of strong communication skills, I think you can be a project manager and you can transfer your skills to any sector, because sector knowledge is absolutely learnable.

There are probably many people out there working on projects where sustainability is not the core focus, but they want more of it. Any lessons you could pass on?

Ask questions about what your company or project is doing about sustainability. Be really difficult and ask those questions, because if they aren’t asked, then we will continue going on blindly. And look to see if there are any opportunities to build in sustainable improvements through the work you do. So, if you’re involved in procurement, can you set procurement policies to ensure that a contractor or a project has to meet certain requirements? Procurement is a great driver and a great catalyst for change, because once something is procured that opportunity is gone. Whereas, if you can do it at the contract level, then you have such an amazing opportunity to make systematic changes.

What you’re saying, really, is that change can happen with one individual?

I think it can. So when we build circular business models for brands, we always say to them: who within the C-suite is the leader for this? Who is ultimately responsible? When we work with brands, we tend to work with the sustainability person and, actually, this is a commercial opportunity. Circular business models are equally about the commercial opportunity and the sustainability opportunity. So we would always advocate that somebody out of the sustainability team is the lead for the project. And that’s where you really drive change.

There’s been so much greenwashing, so how can we get past that to effect real change across projects?

For me, in terms of change and to combat greenwashing, it’s about creating sustainability KPIs within the C-Suite. If those KPIs are focused on actually changing and changing early, then you’re going to absolutely focus minds so there’s no opportunity for greenwashing, because that director or vice president has that KPI on their head.

Any final thoughts?

I’m really optimistic about the pace of change. We’re at a canter and we really need to get to a gallop, but we are changing and the change is moving much more radically. I think the mindset of the next generation of having a sharing economy, of not wanting stuff for stuff’s sake, I’m really encouraged by. And I think by being challenging and continually asking questions, I think the next generation have a real opportunity to fundamentally change the way business operates.

Listen to Kristina’s interview with the APM Podcast in full here.


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