In conversation with Aviva’s Zelda Bentham

Aviva's Zelda Bentham talks to edie about what areas of sustainability the insurance company is focusing on and why climate change sceptics are "brave".

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

There are two areas of focus – firstly, understanding the carbon impact and climate risk associated with Aviva’s own assets and how we can better manage and report on these. Secondly, for a number of years environmental sustainability, community development and human rights have been treated as ‘silo-ed’ issues. We want to manage these issues and create solutions in a totally interconnected way, which will help us demonstrate true sustainability.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

I think we are nearly there on a new long term solution to deal with the effects of climate change for flood risk, which shares the burden in an amicable way among all the stakeholders involved (fingers crossed).

I think our industry will also create products which will provide greater support to clean tech/low carbon sector specific products. Finally, I also think we’ll see much greater recognition by public policy makers of the societal benefits insurance provides at times of weather events, health provision and sickness, retirement and death.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

Some of my challenges include maintaining consistency of message around climate change mitigation and adaptation, particularly when colleagues hear about new and different opinions and views on climate change.

What motivates you?

I am motivated on two levels. Firstly, I have a footer on my email signature which talks about my deep hope, being that in whatever we do, we raise consciousness, notice the wider implications of our actions and make changes for societal good. My second motivation is to ensure Aviva maintains its highly regarded position in the area of sustainability.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

It is really exciting when someone else gets the ‘vision’, and it becomes intrinsic to the way we do business, with the consequence that our work is recognised as good practice externally.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

There is no silver bullet – but hydrogen fuel cells being commonplace will have an enormous impact. Also, more of a market and stronger global competition around clean technologies.

What’s the big focus in 2013 for the environment?

Some “lower carbon” energy solutions which have emerged very recently are distracting the focus from the continuing development of renewable energy generation, in terms of government thinking and incentives for investment. There is the potential that such solutions which, whilst appearing to address energy needs in the short term, have potential to create long term impacts for the environment.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Know how your company works and what it does and what it has the potential to do. Ensure that there is Board support for the sustainability agenda.

Also, the advice that my old boss gave me – the best sustainability training that you’ll receive is ‘on the job’ training -work with the company to understand what will and won’t work.

What do you like most about your job?

Setting the strategy and agenda, innovating and making things work better.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

Not having enough time to be everywhere at once and accomplishing even more!

What do you think 2013 has in store for the green economy?

We’re half way through the year already, but the possibilities of being able to include low carbon considerations into infrastructure projects at the planning stage.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

2070 when my children are retiring. If we haven’t completely managed to annihilate the human race, I would bring back evidence of how things are in a 5 degree + world, so that we would know what we are facing and we could set a solid and urgent path for change.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Apart from my children, of course, tenacity – I have been married for 23 years, and have been working at Aviva for 24 years – longterm -ism in practice??

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Noah – to ask his advice on how to deal with climate sceptics, and people who think they need further evidence before they are willing to do things differently!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My parents encouraged me to bring the best of me to everything I choose to do, to work hard and do things that make me happy.

Worst advice?

I don’t remember, I tend to take a view on the advice I receive and quickly filter out what I think doesn’t work for me.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Make actions as personal as possible and communicate little and often, painting a picture of the benefits to the individual and the company.

What state do you see the planet in 30 years?

Of course, we are at a point now where it could go one of two ways. With China and the US having climate change on their joint agenda – I am optimistic. If the clean tech revolution is driven by competition (a race to be clean), we encourage the art of the possible. By that time, we will be well on our way towards the 9 billion global population figure and that is a lot of mouths to feed, shelter to provide and fulfilling standard of living to maintain.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

You’re brave. The world and future generations cannot afford for you to be wrong. That is a huge burden of responsibility and not one I would be willing to bear.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

The achievement that stands out most, was getting the Aviva Board to sign the Board Statement on climate change, and commitment to account for our remaining operational carbon emissions through offsetting, making Aviva the first insurance company to be carbon neutral in respect of our global operations. However, I would hope that what I do going forward will top that!

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?

I think I would have just one word which encompasses all the elements of Corporate Social Responsibility, corporate responsibility, sustainability and environmental sustainability, so it could be more clearly communicated.

Books or kindle?

Time being a given, which with a young family is non-existent – a book. I read enough electronically at work. A book suggests I am solely reading for myself.

Zelda Bentham is group head of environment & climate change at Aviva plc

Check out last week’s interview ‘In conversation with Reckitt Benckiser’s Dave Challis’

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