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Cleaner and greener - how engineers are driving change

A five-minute interview with Andrea Barrett, VP of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at RS, on how engineers are leading the charge toward more sustainable product design

Andrea Barrett Image and Quote

QUESTION: You have held the role of VP of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at RS since January 2021. Can you outline your vision for sustainability inside the organisation?

ANSWER: To my mind, sustainable engineering and innovation are crucial in tackling the biggest challenges facing our people and planet today – from the climate and biodiversity crises through to promoting better health, well-being and equality for all. At RS Group, we believe in the incredible power of engineers, innovators and technologists to use their skills to create a more socially responsible and sustainable world. That is why we are always by their side - championing education, encouraging innovation and providing the latest sustainable products and service solutions that empower them to make amazing things happen for a better world.

QUESTION: We hear a lot about how companies in the electronics space put sustainability at the heart of their operations. Can you give some tangible examples at RS?

ANSWER: AT RS we have had a real focus and purpose on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), which has accelerated over the past couple of years. We see that in two parts. Firstly, inside our organisation, we have looked intently at what we can do to be cleaner and greener. So, at our 14 distribution centres, we have embarked on a host of initiatives on the pathway to net zero, such as introducing solar panels, improving energy management, and reducing the amount of packaging we use. But in the broader context, it is vital that we help take our customers on this journey, too. That approach means advocating for smart technologies that can deliver tangible benefits, such as saving water, energy, and compressed air. We sit at an exciting place in the global industrial value chain between our suppliers and customers and can therefore help bring a greener and more sustainable solutions to the fore.

QUESTION: The sustainability journey requires embedding a culture of creativity inside an organisation that encourages engineers to challenge conventional wisdom and seek new approaches to old problems. How are you empowering your technical teams to think differently and find new solutions?

ANSWER: Well, firstly, it must come from the top down. Our President of ESG Solutions, Debbie Lentz, reports directly to the Chief Executive of RS Group, and our ESG Committee – with key members of the senior management team and a non-executive director Chair – guide and govern our strong ESG approach. So, there is a keen focus on sustainability – it is embedded in everything we do. Our engineers are encouraged to think sustainably and to take individual and collective responsibility, no matter what project, action, or initiative they are involved in. That purpose-led culture has created a lot of momentum; subsequently, our people are excited and engaged by sustainability.

But we also want to encourage sustainable thinking amongst the broader engineering community. Our DesignSpark platform has more than one million members, including students, hobbyists, makers, designers, and start-ups. It is an incredibly powerful community of people who collaborate through initiatives such as the Activist Engineering campaign, which encourages members to step back and ask how they can create engineering outcomes that positively impact the world around us. Activist Engineering, launched last year, has already delivered some great projects and ideas. Meanwhile, our Grass Roots engineering and technology youth empowerment team at RS helps support the next generation of engineers by bridging the gap between academia and the workplace through learning, mentoring and skills sessions so that sustainability is embedded in their mindset from an early age. So, we are trying to support a culture of creativity across all we do.

QUESTION: Consumers also have a role in helping sustainability flourish. Our society – in the main – has a throwaway mindset, particularly when it comes to electronic goods. How can we work with customers to increase product circularity and reduce waste?

ANSWER: We are undoubtedly seeing mega-trends, such as the shift from low-cost single-use products to sustainable and circular ecosystems. These models deliver greater long-term value and drive more interest in recycling, repairing and reusing. As an organisation, we are responding to that. For example, in tandem with sister company OKdo, we have launched a refurbishment scheme for Raspberry Pi single-board computers, which gives members of the community a chance to return specific boards for free. In return, they will receive a voucher towards their next online purchase. This is a win-win arrangement. It is convenient for the customer and allows us to build longer-term and more profitable relationships which are more than just transactional. 

There are also similar examples in other industries. In-home printing, for example, some suppliers are making the most of connectivity through the Internet of Things to give visibility of when end-users are running low on printer ink and automatically sending recycling bags for the cartridges to be sent back free of charge. As recycling and reuse initiatives such as these become more commonplace, mindsets will change, and, ultimately, we can help create a more sustainable world. 

QUESTION: Let us talk about education. The shift to more sustainable operations will require new skill sets, and talented people will be in even greater demand. What is RS doing to ensure it has the pipeline of technical talent it needs?

ANSWER: A purpose-driven culture is key to attracting and retaining top talent. Younger generations want to deliver holistic value: people, planet and profit. They are not just attracted by salary and rewards – purpose, inclusion and sustainability are also top of their agenda. So, organisations must be genuine and must be able to empower people so that they feel they are playing their part. We try to embody this through our purpose of making amazing happen for a better world.

Sustainability is not just a way of attracting people; it is also very much about retention. And here, social sustainability comes into play. We want to ensure that RS is an inclusive organisation that cares about its employees and people. The world has changed since the pandemic – people want to work more flexibly, and there is a greater focus on work-life balance. Sustainability is about more than the environment; it is societal, too. And I think a lot of young people already appreciate that.

QUESTION: Finally, when you think about the current industrial landscape, what new technologies or ways of working excite you about the potential for advances in sustainability?

ANSWER: From a near-term perspective, renewable energy solutions and connected homes and businesses are areas where tremendous advances are being made. In domestic settings, up until now, there have been a lot of different communication standards, which have sometimes caused interoperability problems. However, we are now starting to see the emergence of open-source protocols that allow devices from different manufacturers to play nicely together. These advances will lead to faster uptake of innovative home technologies and help end-users to realise more benefits in areas such as energy saving.

In factory environments, the Industrial Internet of Things is coming to the fore. Smaller, faster, cheaper sensors can collate data from multiple sources on the factory floor. With wireless connectivity and analytics, engineers can use this information to derive real operational insight. So, for example, by knowing when equipment needs maintenance before it fails, or where systems are leaking energy or air, actions can be taken that improve performance, reduce energy consumption and cut carbon footprints. These are not futuristic ideas – they can be applied right now. And that for me is very exciting.

Andrea was a participant in our recent Sustainability Round Table discussion. You can still view the full discussion right here. Listen to what experts from the RS supplier base had to say about sustainability and the role of engineering.

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