In conversation with HW Fisher’s Jae Mather

This week we talk to HW Fisher's director of sustainability, Jae Mather, who explains that many people in environmental and sustainability fields may have gained "lofty degrees" but often lack the fundamental practical skills that contribute to a sustainable society.

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

Affecting change. There has been a huge amount of effort over the last 50 years that has focused on education and information which has been essential. What has become glaringly apparent is that the time has come for action and my focus is on helping that change towards sustainability manifest in large and real ways.

In addition I am very keen on up skilling myself in practical ways, learning how to grow food, store it and how to make things is a major focus as there seems to be many people in the environmental and sustainability fields with lofty degrees but lacking the practical skills. I am personally working on changing that. Permaculture seems to offer some of the best tools that I have encountered thus far and I am interested in transitioning Permaculture thinking into business processes.

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

A deepening and embedding of sustainability thinking into mainstream businesses through implementing things like sustainable procurement, local economic impact assessments, Social Return on Investment (SROI), triple bottom line accounting, life cycle assessment, natural capital and environmental profit and loss assessments.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

Keeping up the energy and enthusiasm when challenging existing systems that are focused on keeping everything the same.

What motivates you?

A deep sense of equality, justice and citizenship and a feeling that I owe it to my children, those who will follow me and even my ancestors to do everything that I can to create a prosperous, beautiful and abundant sustainable world.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Influencing, persuading and challenging others to lead and promote sustainability.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

There are many innovative technologies that can do this. One of my favourites currently is the Photo Voltaic Thermal (PV-T) Hybrid Solar Solution. This combines PV and Solar Hot Water into a single panel along with an in roof water sourced heat pump that leads to the panels producing extra electricity along with heat as a by-product. The water sourced heat pump also enables a passive solar solution to become an active one with on demand heating.

Separate to technology, I feel that what we really need is to unshackle the entrepreneurial spirit of the UK so that we re-learn that the biggest risk of all is not taking any. The human imagination is much more important and as Einstein said “In times of crisis, only imagination is more important than knowledge”

What’s the big focus for the environment?

Continuing the rollout of sustainable solutions into the business world and keeping an eye squarely on innovations in the marketplace.

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

Become a jack of all trades, yes I know that this is largely frowned upon but my experience has shown me that there are many different skill sets that are needed in order to affect change and super specialisation often limits one’s ability to see the linkages that are essential for change. I would also say that you need to become a good communicator especially when speaking in front of audiences so get up there and try and try again. Take a leaf from young children who don’t really understand failure and as such they just keep trying again and again, that’s how they learn how to walk and to run.

What do you like most about your job?

Speaking to a vast variety of people from different backgrounds and professions. I also love it when solutions come together and they are not only highly effective but also offer great return on investment.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

Struggling with the status quo which is perfectly summarised by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513 “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nothing more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all who would profit by the new order.”

What do you think the next 12 months have in store for the green economy?

Tremendous opportunity if only the barriers were to get out of the way.

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

2080 to see how things turn out.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Writing a sustainable procurement policy when I worked at a local authority that lead to an entire Council switching from conventional cleaning materials to eco-friendly ones with no change to either the cost or the quality of service. This in turn lead to the cleaning contractor changing all of their clients over to eco-friendly cleaning as well and then a complete re-branding of the cleaning company which resulted in an increase in turnover of over 800% in 2 years.

Many awards were won and I was asked to speak at numerous conferences across the UK and EU which lead to my teaching sustainable procurement on the University of Birmingham’s MBA program where I regularly engage with leaders from many governmental and business organisations from across the world. This all came from 2 paragraphs in a tender, it showed me just how powerful sustainable purchasing can be.

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

Darwin and Plato

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

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Worst advice?

That the ego should drive personal motivation. IT SHOULDN’T.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Empowerment is essential and it is vital that people from all sections of an organisation be included in creating decision making frameworks. In addition, feedback often gets missed out and if we want to motivate people it is important to let them know what and why decisions have been made.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

Either we will quickly evolve our society and economy to change direction completely away from degrading the environment or we won’t. If we don’t then it will all have been a terrible waste and we will repeat the same patterns of all of the empires of the past who failed, except this time were all in it together and nature doesn’t have an HR department to complain to. To put it simply either we learn to manage ourselves or it will be done for us.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

Simply put, I am afraid that the evidence doesn’t support their hypothesis. I don’t honestly feel that focusing great effort on the 10% of society that steadfastly refuse to change as viable. We should instead put that energy into the bigger group who are still open to listening because if you think you are right then you may not be interested in listening and if that is the case regardless of how right you are you will eventually become wrong.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

Demonstrating that a client could spend a few million pounds and reduce their carbon emissions by 110% (through the exporting of excess electricity to the grid and a number of other measures) and thus transition from having a negative impact to having a positive one; all the while achieving a return on investment of 26% and massively reducing their exposure to external risk!

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

Future Discounting, yes it is two words but for me it perfectly represents a fundamental disconnect between our financial/business world’s view and the natural one where something is worth less in the future than it is now. This thinking has led to our creation of immense short termism which in turn has in many ways lead to many of the problems that we currently find ourselves in. If nature were to take the same approach then an Oak tree wouldn’t produce thousands of seeds every year because just one of them might grow into a mature tree; as Joss Tantram said “They should evolve methods of compounding rather than discounting future value”

Books or kindle?


Director of sustainability for HW Fisher & Company and Carbon Free Group

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