How data analysis plays a part in the journey to net zero

Posted on 4 Jan 2023 by Lanna Deamer

The Manufacturer’s Lanna Deamer speaks with Natalie Watson, Group Head of Sustainability at The Vita Group, a manufacturer of flexible polyurethane (PU) foams, who delivered a keynote at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit 2022, around delivering valuable environmental impact data.

Natalie shared a case study on The Vita Group’s net zero emissions data journey, challenges faced during the company’s decarbonisation journey and how to display data in a way that tells the whole story in a simple way.

Natalie Watson, Head of Sustainability at The Vita Group
Natalie Watson, Group Head of Sustainability at The Vita Group

Manufacturers all around the world are facing chronic supply chain issues with resilience, agility and visibility being key challenges. This is all against the background of rampant global inflation and the complex question of who pays.

The issue of skills availability continues to worsen in UK manufacturing. While the skills requirements in this digitalised world continue to change, manufacturing still struggles to attract the right talent and be perceived, by the general populace, as a good career path. The final two wider issues, which are heavily interwoven, are digitalisation and sustainability.

The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent global issues have demonstrated beyond all doubt that a more digitalised and automated operation is the only way of safeguarding the future. Throw in the moral (and soon to be legal) impetus for a net zero future and manufacturers clearly have a plethora of challenges to overcome.

There are no clear roadmaps or one-size-fits-all solutions. Only by discussing with peers and experts, sharing experiences and lessons, and a spirit of cooperation and collaboration can UK manufacturing navigate its way through these turbulent times. Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit (16-17 November) is where all these issues will be aired, discussed and solutions offered.

Working with multiple stakeholders, The Vita Group is at the forefront of using lower carbon and more sustainable alternative raw materials. While PU foam is traditionally made from non-renewable chemicals, the company is moving towards using more sustainable feedstock and developing circular economies through partnerships with industry bodies, universities and suppliers.

In her current role, Natalie is responsible for driving through advocacy and partnerships and leading the transformational change to deliver against each of The Vita Group’s four principal areas of the ‘Enhancing everyday life’ sustainability plan; driving circularity, optimising resources, empowering people and acting ethically. Prior to this role, Natalie was Responsible Business Lead for the property services company the Extentia Group – leading the responsible business and sustainable development strategy across 11 legal entities.

What has The Vita Group’s sustainability journey been like so far?

NW: Sustainability has been embedded into the business since its earliest days. The founder of the business realised that there was an opportunity to add social value with the formation of latex products. Throughout the various decades, as early as the 1990s, The Vita Group started to innovate in more energy efficient products, although in those days it was more about production efficiencies.

We’ve carried this across the board for the past 30 years, but it’s only just become a structured sustainable development plan over the last decade, and only in the last five years have we consolidated our ESG measurement against our sustainability strategy. To reduce that reliance on the petrochemical side of the business, we’ve brought to market products that have used bio polyol and renewable feedstocks instead of virgin hydrocarbons. We have made a lot of progress and we will be continuing that journey to ensure that all our products will become fully circular, and The Vita Group aims to do that in a way that fulfils our sustainable ambitions.

How integral is sustainability to The Vita Group’s overall business strategy?

Sustainability is at the front and centre of our business. We have a very proactive executive team; the passion shown by Ian Robb, CEO of The Vita Group, really shines through and is contagious throughout the whole company. Since joining The Vita Group, every meeting I’ve attended has included ESG or sustainability as part of the key components, and that’s not just because of the role I do but because it’s key on our agenda. The publication of our annual sustainability report highlighted that our strategy drives trust through enhancing our traceability of our products, but also the transparency of what we’re doing here at The Vita Group.

Our annual sustainability report is an open window that shows the sector what we’re doing. The release of our second report, which will be published in 2023, will hold us accountable as a business and offer a comparison of what we have done against what we said we were going to do. We are more than happy to share our experiences and challenges, which is fundamental to understand your impact as a business, to be able to manage it. After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure!

As of September 2022, The Vita Group is now the first flexible PU manufacturer to have its climate targets approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). As a society, if we are to limit global warming by 1.5ºC, we need rapid and far-reaching transitions, and business participation is critical to achieve this. Our ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets align with The Paris Agreement and have been validated by independent climate scientists, which gives us the confidence that as a business, we are supporting the global economy to halve emissions by 2030.

We have set some ambitious targets, specifically to reduce Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 46% by 2030. And in 2021, we achieved this target nine years ahead of schedule; but we are not stopping there, as we’ve committed to reaching net zero in our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2050. We have also set another target to reduce our Scope 3 emissions by 13.5% by 2030. Capturing data in our value chain emissions is a challenge but it’s one we’re leaning into by working with key partners who have expert knowledge that can be leveraged to make further progress.

What challenges have you faced in your decarbonisation journey?

There have been many challenges but one significant impact occurred with the breakout of war in Ukraine when the inflation of raw materials hugely impacted our spend data. Therefore, our Scope 3 emissions data shot up exponentially even though there wasn’t a great change in our emissions. Our behaviour across Scope 3 reduced but because of the inflation of prices and the way we calculated our emissions to begin with, this really affected us as a business.

With our Scope 3 emissions, we’re now calculating our intensity and examining our data over the next three years to ensure its accuracy as we’re now collecting it at source, but in order to make the journey, we just wanted to make a start. It goes back to the age old saying: ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’. We didn’t want to wait until we had every single component aligned as we just wanted to get started on our journey; it’s okay to amend and adapt along the way because sometimes the biggest step can be just starting. A key challenge for us was really making sense of the sheer amount of data coming through and this is a challenge I know we were not alone in facing.

How much harder are Scope 3 emissions to measure and manage than Scope 1 and 2?

Roughly 95% of our emissions lie in Scope 3 so we knew we had to make a start and it’s become easier now thanks to our partnership with Schneider Electric. We’ve taken the necessary steps to map out our supply chain to pull out where we’ve aligned on various targets and collaborated with data collection. Having a digitised supply chain has helped us when carrying out these exercises, we’re also sending out ‘Know Your Supplier’ surveys which help pick out certain data.

We’ve got the SBTi which is naturally a vigorous data collection piece and Scope 3 is included in that. A key selling point for our products now is that we’re able to tell our customers and suppliers that we’re working hard to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 emissions and that effectively reduces their Scope 3.

With the sheer amount of data at their fingertips, how can manufacturers ensure they are extracting data that is useful and meaningful?

I would suggest two ways that we found to be enlightening. The first was the SBTi which is externally validated by climate scientists; aligning with these targets would allow manufacturers to make sense of the data with the guidance provided as it gives a clear structure to follow. The fact that they are also externally validated means that it is a rigorous process, and it allows high standards of measurement that can be inputted into an algorithm that already works.

It was important for us to be aligned with a standard ESG reporting framework, and for us that was EcoVadis. Approximately 85% of our suppliers have also embraced that framework and it’s a real consolidation of standards which allows for continuous improvement. It offers a clear structure of where we need to align ourselves in order to make life easier. And there was a lightbulb moment as we went through EcoVadis, where we had that realisation.

For example, I’m the authorised representative for the UN Global Compact for the UK network. From a business perspective that allows us to increase our sphere of influence within the system around policy makers, legislation changes and other industry parties beyond our own sector. So it allowed us to catch the wave. In addition, as we went through the questions in the EcoVadis process, it highlighted gaps in areas where we perhaps didn’t have a policy or didn’t know how to collect data on a certain process. It allows for continuous improvement once you’ve aligned with the ESG framework, and from those two perspectives, it has certainly allowed us to gain momentum in the data disclosure process.

Sustainability cannot be achieved in isolation, so how important are partnerships and collaboration?

We openly accept that we don’t have all the answers and expertise to achieve everything we want, so our partnership with Schneider Electric has enabled us to lean on them as a consultant to work together and harness its knowledge and experience.

For us, when everyone is ‘all in’, that is success. If we all work together, then we can achieve what we want a lot quicker. However, there is turbulence ahead for the industry so it’s important to stand strong on our narrative. I hope that my keynote at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit will highlight how open and transparent The Vita Group is on its sustainability journey.

What tips would you give to manufacturers who are just starting out on their sustainability journey?

As a first step, it’s important to understand materiality to your business. Manufacturers should sit down with key stakeholders to discuss what impacts the business, what influences stakeholders and what drives business growth. Once you’ve established these core elements then the material risks to the business can be calculated, as well as finding out what impact areas the business has of both good and bad. This will give you a good foundation to start building your sustainability strategy.

My advice would always be to find your interested parties – particularly people within your organisation; the more diverse the better. If you work within a diverse group, then you will ensure cognitive dissonance. Sustainability is such a complex topic that you need to have various viewpoints being openly discussed. Establishing a sustainable leader to facilitate these interested parties is really important – they can be that conduit for collaboration to happen.

Watch our video interview here at Smart Factory Expo 2022.