Sandra Anani has 20+ years’ experience working in sustainability and corporate governance and has forged strong relationships with world class knowledge partners and sustainability thought leaders during her career. As Director and Founder of STA, Sandra has consulted for numerous international and regional clients. Sandra has a proven track record in providing innovative and creative projects in sustainability strategy, events and communications globally. Sandra has extensive international experience, particularly in the management, operation and delivery of programmes in the Middle East and Europe. Sandra speaks fluent Arabic and is also a published author.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Sandra shared her professional trajectory, insights on the biggest challenges faced by businesses when it comes to sustainability, what sets Sustainability To Action apart from the other market competitors, significant career milestones, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Sandra, what inspired you to become a sustainability leader?
It’s a journey that has been fuelled by a combination of personal passion, a commitment to positive change, and a deep sense of responsibility towards our planet and all sentient beings. Growing up, I was always drawn to nature and its wonders. I attribute a lot of this to my MBA at Royal Holloway University of London, and particularly to my then Business Ethics Professor; Dr Dirk Matten As I became more aware of the governance, ethical and environmental challenges our world faces, I felt a calling to contribute meaningfully to addressing these issues. Witnessing the impact of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and unsustainable practices, I realised that I the only place for me was to be part of the solution.
My academic background in sustainability further deepened my understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic systems. It became clear to me that a holistic and inclusive approach was essential to creating lasting change. The more I learned, the more I felt a sense of urgency to act.
Moreover, I’ve been inspired by the incredible work of fellow sustainability leaders, activists, and organisations around the world. Their dedication and innovative solutions motivate and renew my commitment to keep moving forward. People like Her Excellency Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, Secretary General Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, Mark Gough, CEO Capitals Coalition, Jessica Fries, Executive Chairman of The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S), Craig Bennett, CEO, Wildlife Trusts and Dexter Galvin, Chief Commercial and Partnerships Officer, CDP.
I believe that collective action is key to driving systemic change. In my professional journey, I have had the privilege of working with like-minded individuals and organisations, collaboratively developing and implementing sustainability initiatives. The opportunity to make a tangible impact and contribute to building a more sustainable and equitable future continues to be a driving force in my career.
Ultimately, my inspiration comes from a vision of a world where balance is restored, and our actions nurture rather than deplete the planet’s resources. It is a privilege to be part of the sustainability community, and I am committed to advancing the cause with passion, integrity, and a steadfast belief in the positive impact we can achieve together.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing businesses when it comes to sustainability?
Several challenges are commonly faced by businesses in their pursuit of sustainability. The most obvious is transparency and disclosure. So aside from that, I will share what I think are the top 5:
- Costs and ROI Concerns: Implementing sustainable practices and solutions may require investments in technology, infrastructure, and training. Many businesses struggle with the perceived high costs and are concerned about the return on investment (ROI) in the short term. however, i believe that companies need to integrate sustainability into the organsational ethos, redefine their purpose and once the start to view their businesses a longer-term sustainable proposition they will have integrates sustainability into the corporate governance and decision making framework which will in turn mean that the cost and ROI concerns would be address at the correct gateway and the business strategy and direction will mean decisions are made holistically.
- Supply Chain Complexity: For companies with extensive supply chains, ensuring sustainability throughout the entire process can be challenging. Sourcing materials responsibly, reducing waste, and ensuring ethical practices from suppliers are all aspects that need attention. I would strongly advocate the adoption of CDP’s framework to help with effectively dealing with Scope 3 emissions.
- Regulatory Uncertainty: The regulatory landscape around sustainability is subject to change, and businesses may face challenges in adapting to new or evolving regulations. This uncertainty can make it difficult for companies to plan and implement long-term sustainability strategies.
- Consumer Awareness and Expectations: As consumers become more ethically and environmentally conscious, they expect businesses to align with sustainable practices and indeed with their own values. However, there can be a gap between consumer expectations and a company’s ability to meet those expectations, leading to reputation-related risks.
- Lack of Standardisation: The absence of universal standards for measuring and reporting sustainability practices makes it challenging for businesses to communicate their efforts effectively. Lack of standardisation can also hinder benchmarking and comparison with industry peers.
Are there any sustainability trends that have caught your attention and that you believe companies should keep an eye on in 2024?
Scientists emphasise that we’ve already damaged nature extensively, particularly in countries like the UK and much of Western Europe. Merely conserving what remains isn’t sufficient; we need to actively restore nature. This concept, termed “nature positivity,” is the way forward. highlighted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and also at COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai. Ensuring that businesses, governments, societies, and the global economy prioritise nature positivity is crucial. This involves rebuilding lost natural habitats, not just for aesthetic reasons but for our very survival. Nature restoration is essential for our future well-being, food security, economy, and the vital ecosystem services it provides, such as clean air and water. Therefore, both locally and globally, we must focus on putting nature into recovery.
Tell us about the mission and vision of Sustainability To Action. What sets it apart from the other market competitors?
We are creative sustainability communications and events experts.
Our Mission: Sharing a commitment towards a sustainable future by helping organisations to effectively manage the paradigm shift towards a more sustainable future.
Our Vision: A future where sustainability is integrated into every aspect of society, leading to a healthier planet, more equitable societies, and thriving economies.
- Commitment – consistently striving to achieve business objectives
- Transparency – meaningful and open, two-way relationships with leadership teams
- Integrity – dedication to the highest standards of business integrity and professionalism
- Innovation Excellence – delivering excellence and innovation through every action
Relying on a vast wealth of experience, Sustainability to Action (STA) offers clients unique and valuable sustainability consultation services to support them in moving their businesses forward towards more resilient and robust sustainable future. Our consultants’ extensive local and international experience in various sectors gives us a competitive edge in providing consultation services in the fields of:
- Sustainability and Governance
- Events Management and
- Market Research
Sustainability to Action plays an important role throughout the year for business professionals generally and sustainability practitioners specifically to learn more about sustainability, and to find solutions and answers for the issues and challenges that their organisations are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
As part of our core values, we participate in many Corporate Responsibility activities demonstrating our commitment towards our local community. This includes providing sustainability awareness workshops to organisations such as Emirates Transport. In addition, the STA team also works to promote sustainable lifestyles through pro bono engagement with universities, providing work experience to young Emirati women and supporting various events.
How important is the connection between the goals of the ESG / Sustainability team and the goals of the overall business?
Overall, the connection between the goals of the ESG/sustainability team and the goals of the overall business cannot be overstated. The sustainability team is accountable for managing the overall delivery of the Sustainability strategy and Sustainability transformation programme, ensuring all programmes meet the agreed transformation agenda, executed effectively, on time and within budget.
This needs to be done collaboratively in order to drive faster execution of plans which will deliver higher efficiency and better utilisation of assets, driving better business sustainability performance with accountability for realising tangible improvements to agreed KPIs.
Sustainability is a great big TEAM effort. So supporting colleagues within the Sustainability Team and more widely across the organisation with all aspects of transformation is critical, This includes for example: scoping of transformation initiatives, creation of business cases, preparation of documents and presentations for the relevant committees and other Governance processes.
The sustainability team should also help to establish new internal targets, monitoring and governance processes to build internal accountability and drive progress on sustainability delivery across the entire organisation.
Therefore, connection between the goals of the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) or sustainability team and the goals of the overall business is incredibly important for several strategic reasons:
- Alignment with Business Strategy: When the goals of the ESG/sustainability team are aligned with the broader business objectives, it ensures that efforts in sustainability are integrated into the core strategies of the company. This alignment helps in driving business growth, reducing risks, and enhancing reputation.
- Value Creation: Sustainability initiatives can create value for the business in various ways, such as cost savings through resource efficiency, access to new markets or customers who prioritize sustainability, and enhancing brand reputation. When the goals are connected, it ensures that sustainability efforts contribute directly to value creation for the business.
- Risk Management: ESG factors can present significant risks to businesses, including regulatory risks, supply chain disruptions, and reputational damage. Aligning the goals of the ESG team with the overall business goals enables proactive management of these risks, ensuring resilience and long-term viability.
- Stakeholder Expectations: Investors, customers, employees, and other stakeholders increasingly expect businesses to operate sustainably and responsibly. When the goals of the ESG team are aligned with the broader business goals, it demonstrates a commitment to meeting these expectations, enhancing trust and loyalty among stakeholders.
- Long-Term Sustainability: Businesses operate within social and environmental contexts, and their long-term success depends on their ability to operate sustainably within these constraints. Aligning ESG goals with overall business goals ensures that sustainability is integrated into long-term planning and decision-making processes, fostering resilience and adaptability.
- Regulatory Compliance: With growing regulatory focus on ESG issues, aligning the goals of the ESG team with the overall business goals ensures that the company remains compliant with evolving regulations. This proactive approach reduces the risk of non-compliance penalties and enables the business to stay ahead of regulatory changes.
Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
Absolutely, there are numerous individuals who have profoundly influenced my journey, and I am immensely grateful to them. Your question prompts me to express gratitude to one remarkable person in particular—Des Hetherington, the former CEO of UK airline British Mediterranean Airways, which later merged with British Midland and then British Airways. As I reflect on pivotal moments in my life, I realise the profound impact Des has had on the trajectory of my career and life. His support and the opportunity Des provided for me to become a station manager at the young age of 26 have been transformative. I cannot adequately articulate the extent of the difference it has made in my life. Without Des’s encouragement and belief in me, I am certain my career would have taken me on another path.
Thank you for giving the opportunity to express my gratitude to Des for shaping my world into a better place amidst the challenges of life, particularly as I never had the chance to thank him in person as he passed away before I could. I hope these words reach his family so they can understand what an amazing person Des was and the legacy he leaves behind in many of us. He was a rare leader with integrity and the courage of his convictions, a man I will always respect and appreciate.
What does the term “authentic leadership” mean to you?
Leadership can mean different things to different people, but at the core of it I believe it has a lot to do with integrity. Integrity stands as the cornerstone as it transcends mere actions and reflects a deep alignment between one’s values and behaviour. Furthermore, the essence of effective leadership lies not just in commanding attention but in the ability to truly listen and empathise. Without these qualities, a leader risks becoming detached from those they aim to guide. While grand speeches have their place, authentic leadership underscores the importance of genuine connection through active listening and empathy.
What achievements are you most proud of in the sustainability space?
I take great pride in my contributions to Abu Dhabi Airports’ initiation of its carbon management journey back in 2010. It was a milestone as the first airport outside Europe to adopt ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme, paving the way for environmental stewardship. Additionally, in 2011, we achieved another first in the Middle East by publishing a comprehensive sustainability report, showcasing our commitment to transparency and responsible practices. Furthermore, my involvement in establishing the Abu Dhabi Sustainable Business Leadership Forum in 2015 stands as a testament to our dedication to sustainable development on a broader scale. On a personal note, I am particularly proud of the partnerships cultivated with the Capitals Coalition and CDP, underscoring our commitment to collaborative efforts for a more sustainable future. These relationships have not only been nurtured but have also flourished over time, reflecting our enduring commitment to impactful partnerships.
How have you kept yourself motivated in difficult times? Have you developed any new skills, or a focus on personal well-being?
Over time, I’ve come to understand that encountering challenges and setbacks is a natural part of life, and seeking support when needed is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Prioritising my own well-being has become paramount, and I’ve found that practicing self-care, even in small ways, greatly enhances my ability to stay motivated and resilient in tough times. My innate curiosity drives me to explore areas of interest; for instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I embarked on my second master’s degree, delving into Corporate Governance through a Master of Laws program. Engaging in hobbies like gardening and immersing myself in nature has proven to be a profound source of healing for me. As an avid reader, I always have a book on hand; currently, I’m engrossed in “A World in the Making,” a nature book recommended by Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, which vividly describes ancient environments dating back millions of years. Cooking is another passion of mine, and I’d be remiss not to mention my own food journal, “A Knock on the Door,” which you can explore further here: [link to the food journal].
What are your plans for the future?
In the foreseeable future, my aspirations revolve around seeking opportunities to contribute to the growth and development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by serving on their boards. I’m particularly drawn to the dynamic environment of SMEs where innovative ideas flourish and where strategic guidance can make a significant impact. Additionally, I’m keen on sharing my knowledge and expertise through teaching. Whether it’s mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs or imparting business-related skills to students, I see teaching as a fulfilling way to give back to the community and nurture the next generation of leaders. Overall, my future plans are centred on leveraging my experience and insights to support business growth and foster learning and development in both professional and educational settings.
What advice would you give to other professionals looking to incorporate sustainability into their work?
When considering how to integrate sustainability into your work areas, I suggest that people take some time out to learn about sustainability: Spend time understanding what sustainability means and how it affects your industry. Figure out where you can make positive changes. Link up with your sustainability department and see how you can help them to help you.
If you don’t have a sustainability department, perhaps you can decide on specific things you want to achieve, like using less energy or creating less waste. Make sure your goals are clear and doable. Get other involved: Talk to your coworkers, customers, and suppliers about sustainability. Ask for their ideas and support.
Don’t be afraid to test out new ideas and technologies to help you be more sustainable. Keep track of your progress: measure how well you’re doing with sustainability, like how much energy you’re using or how much waste you’re producing.
Remember that sustainability is something you keep working on. Be ready to change your plans as you learn more. It’s important to work with others. Cultivate supportive networks and actively engage in sustainability initiatives such as those offered by organisations like CDPP (Climate Action Platform), the Capitals Coalition, and Accounting for Sustainability. These platforms provide valuable resources, guidance, and opportunities to contribute meaningfully to sustainability efforts within your work sphere. By fostering collaboration and staying dedicated to the cause, you can effectively incorporate sustainability principles into your professional practice.