Careers advice from James Piper, managing director of Ecosurety, the UK’s leading compliance scheme and resource efficiency specialist
How did you land your current job?
After graduating from Exeter University with a degree in biological sciences, I worked as a campaign co-ordinator for an online scientific publication. That gave me enough experience to apply for a marketing job at Ecosurety, where I worked through a series of client-facing roles, learning the technical aspects of the UK’s compliance regulations and growing our client base.
I then moved into being a commercial manager, then commercial director, responsible for sales and marketing teams, with responsibility for buying and selling packaging recovery notes (PRNs) on behalf of our biggest clients.
In 2014 I oversaw the company’s rebrand, and earlier this year I was appointed managing director.
What has helped you get where you are in your career?
Unlike a lot of people of my generation, I’ve stayed with the same company for the vast majority of my career and have got to know it inside and out.
I think it’s also very important that you believe in your company’s core values. I wholeheartedly agree with Ecosurety’s ethos of change for good; whereby doing something for the good of others, the industry or colleagues has positive outcomes for the business. Because Ecosurety’s outlook fundamentally mirrors my own, I am always passionate and happy to give the best of myself to the business. I am driven to help it grow and constantly strive to improve core offerings and services to members.
Do you have any tips for people about to embark in your field on how to make a success out of their careers in sustainability?
The most important thing is to care passionately about sustainability. Operating in a sustainable way is not always the easiest option for companies. You have to care a lot about doing the right thing all the time. That’s a lot easier if you are personally invested in sustainability. It has to be the beating heart of what you do, otherwise you will only ever pay lip service to the idea, and you won’t go that extra mile.
Who have been your role-models/mentors in your career?
Without a doubt the founder of Ecosurety, Steve Clark. Steve started Ecosurety when he realised demand for expertise and knowledge on packaging compliance was growing. He was convinced of the inherent value of recycled material, and was an early supporter of the circular economy.
Steve has a zero tolerance approach to waste, coupled with an unshakeable belief that if a company operates in both an ethical and excellent way, sustainable rewards will come. Steve carries this message in everything he does, including his work for the Executive Foundation and the Leadership Trust.
What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way?
Many producers have mixed views about The Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), battery and packaging compliance obligations. It can be cumbersome and it’s non-negotiable. As a result, companies view their obligations as a tax, when in fact it’s an opportunity to put value into the waste and recycling chain and to make a tangible difference. It’s one of the reasons I came up with the idea for our online packaging PRN platform Circularety, because I was so frustrated that the inherent potential of PRNs was not being grasped by the industry.
I would also like to see a lot more innovation in the waste and recycling chain generally when it comes to solving problems that affect us. Up until we launched Circularety, there had been a lot of discussion, lots of hand-wringing, and a lot of reports about the fact the PRN system was not working for producers and reprocessors, but nothing was really changing. As an industry that delivers £12 billion to the UK economy, we have to be coming up with a lot of these solutions ourselves, not wait for the Government to step in.
What stages of your career have been the most challenging?
Going from being an employee to a board director was initially challenging. You are working very closely with people who have effectively been your bosses for a long time. If you disagree with their decisions, you have to find a way to do that effectively. There is also a lot of pressure at board level to make the right decision because it affects people’s livelihoods and their families. That can be challenging to adjust to, and really does focus the mind.
The most rewarding?
Working with the highly talented people at Ecosurety and seeing people develop their careers is one of the most satisfying things about being a boss. I also get great pleasure out of leading and coaching the management team across all areas of the business to achieve our vision to become one of the most popular compliance schemes in the UK by offering the highest standards of service.
What is key to getting the most out of your team/colleagues?
Fairness in the way your team is treated is absolutely key to success at this level. People don’t work for organisations, they work for people who share the same values. Embedding the organisation’s core outlook in the management team is also key to ensuring those values trickle down the organisation and that every employee understands the role they play in the organisation, and how they contribute towards its success.
It is important that every employee feels valued, and also feels they have the opportunity to advance their career to whatever level they want, while still maintaining some work life balance. A happy employee tends to give their best to their organisation.
What have been the ground-breaking instances or milestones in the sustainability field that have really changed the way you have to work? And how did you adapt to these events?
The implementation of EU directives on waste and recycling was an absolute game-changer because they forced producers to comply either financially or process-wise every year to cover the environmental impact of putting their goods onto the market. In one fell swoop, the directives created a link between manufacturing and waste, and really were the embryo of what we understand today as the circular economy.
Last September we poured everything we’d learned over the past 13 years working with all kinds of producers and reprocessors to launch Circularety in order to provide greater visibility of recycling investment projects for producers, while also lining up tangible projects for reprocessors to help them better manage their PRN money.
What qualifications have been necessary/most beneficial in your career?
Having an eye for numbers and a scientific degree has definitely helped. It meant I relished the opportunity to take the time to learn the technically difficult packaging regulations, so as to be able to better advise clients, particularly around the pitfalls and opportunities inside the PRN market.
This is a service very much valued by clients and I became responsible for advising clients, often blue chip names, about their PRNs. I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Circularety if I hadn’t put in this effort. It also meant I understood the sustainability issues as experienced by C-suite level executives.
Have you had much continuing professional development, has this been useful?
I have undertaken lots of CPD but the one that stands out for me is a five-day course with the Leadership Trust, which really enabled me get to grips with my role when I became commercial manager.
I’ve also really benefited from a course on directorship and the role of the board with the Institute of Directors. This told me how the board should operate, and has helped me further strengthen it.
Could you sum up, in one sentence, what has changed in the industry since you first began your job?
It’s not enough to be sustainable; your company needs to demonstrate how it is embedding transparent sustainable practices across the supply chain.
What does the future have in store for your industry – choppy waters ahead? Or a fruitful and secure future?
The Brexit vote has created a new sense of uncertainty that was not present before 23 June. While this could be a source of anxiety for the industry, it could also be a tremendous opportunity to fashion UK recycling in a way that suits our needs. For example, we would love to see less red tape at producer and reprocessor level to encourage not just compliance, but the reduction, re-use and recycling of raw materials across the board. However, we don’t believe in waiting for regulatory change, with Circularety we wanted to lead the industry and we would like to see more companies creating industry initiatives, for the benefit of all.