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‘Sustainability is a smart business strategy’

‘Sustainability is a smart business strategy’

15 June 22
 | 13 MINS

Joanne Sheahan, Senior Executive for Climate Action & Sustainability with Enterprise Ireland talks about sustainability and business in Ireland.

Inspired by Australia’s diverse ecosystem, Joanne Sheahan knew she wanted to work in a job that made a difference to the world. Now Senior Executive for Climate Action & Sustainability with Enterprise Ireland (EI), the NUI Galway alum chats to Cois Coiribe about the greatest sustainability challenges currently facing businesses in Ireland, and what our Government and our universities should be doing to support them.

CC: Where did your interest in sustainability stem from?

JS: My interest in environmental issues was sparked when I travelled around Australia after finishing my degree in NUI Galway in 2007. I was living in Melbourne and I think it was the first time I noticed people using reusable coffee cups! The vastly different and awesome landscapes in Australia had a big impact on me – rainforests, desert, rugged coastlines, and mountain ranges. It suddenly became obvious to me how important it is that different ecosystems are protected and maintained. Visiting Ayers Rock was the first time I thought about the convergence between ecosystem conservation and human development needs. When I came home, I knew I wanted a job that would have a positive impact on the world. I went on to do a Masters in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh where my interest in sustainability grew (I ended up doing my dissertation on cultural ecosystem services).  

Since then, I’ve worked in sustainability for over twelve years in Ireland and abroad, and across different sectors including NGOs, Public Bodies, private companies and community groups, as well as a range of industries.  

CC: You studied law as an undergrad at NUI Galway; how did that support the career path you went on to follow?

JS: Studying law gave me a good basis for understanding complex environmental and social issues that companies are contending with relating to sustainability. For businesses, the risk and opportunities relating to sustainability are brand value and customer retention and attraction. Ultimately though, sustainability is driven by compliance with regulations and legislation, and the reporting requirements that follow from that.

Although caring for the environment is core to sustainability, it’s also about innovation, change management and engaging with people. 

CC:What does your job involve?

JS: I work as a Senior Executive on Enterprise Ireland’s Climate & Sustainability team. Enterprise Ireland works with over 5,000 Irish owned businesses across all sectors of manufacturing and internationally traded services. My role is to figure out how we can help our clients do business in the most effective and sustainable way. This includes helping them understand what regulations and demands are coming, and how they will be impacted.

Part of my role is to support EI’s client companies in navigating and applying for Enterprise Ireland’s financial supports under the Climate Enterprise Action Fund. These financial supports reflect the needs of companies at different stages of their decarbonisation and sustainability journey, helping them to build the capabilities required to deliver sustainable products, services and business models. Although caring for the environment is core to sustainability, it’s also about innovation, change management and engaging with people.  

CC: What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges facing Irish businesses with regards to sustainability?

JS: Sustainability is one of the defining issues of our time and businesses are aware they are facing huge challenges, including changing consumer attitudes, more aggressive regulatory authorities and shifting investor priorities – as well as highly engaged and passionate employees. Irish businesses need to change by increasing their efforts to become more sustainable, but the scale of the transition will require significant capital and operational expenditure. The biggest challenge will be to maintain viable, competitive businesses while incentivising an acceleration in investment. Smart businesses will rise to the challenge because they will understand the commercial benefits.

CC:What can these businesses do now to ensure that they are ahead of the game in terms of sustainability?

JS: Reducing emissions and adopting more sustainable production practices is a smart business strategy. Responding positively to the growing consumer demand for sustainable products and services is important for consumer-facing businesses because increasingly, customers are placing a premium on a company’s sustainability credentials. Similarly, businesses that provide products or services to larger companies are now being required to show transparent environmental credentials and alignment with international standards. Inclusion in this supply chain will increasingly rely on a company’s ability to prove their commitment to the emerging low-carbon, sustainable economy.  

The recent news that a 1.5 degrees global temperature increase may happen sooner than predicted would indicate that businesses need to consider how warmer, more acidic oceans, rising sea levels and extreme weather will impact their businesses in the near future, and prepare for the inevitable and immediate effects of climate change.  

Very few Irish SMEs are currently tracking or measuring their environmental impact or investing in climate change at all.

CC: What can the government do to support these businesses?

JS: Ireland has an ambitious target to reduce emissions by more than 51% by the end of the decade. The enterprise sector accounts for 13% of Ireland’s emissions, so it has an important role to play in this national strategy. However, there needs to be better information and clearer instruction as to how climate ambitions can be met. The bulk of Irish companies are focused on growth and development, and don’t attribute value outside the established financial measures and indicators. Very few Irish SMEs are currently tracking or measuring their environmental impact or investing in climate change at all (European firms and climate change 2020/2021: Evidence from the EIB Investment Survey).

The incentives or pressure to do so is still not there from a policy perspective. Businesses don’t have the resources or time to set about transforming their business – particularly now, coming out of a global pandemic and as a result, the role of government is key to driving this transformation. Although balance is important, I think immediate, wholesale changes to the system are necessary because from my experience, the sense of urgency is not there.  

CC:What do you feel that universities should be doing to ensure sustainability in terms of research and teaching?

JS: University governing bodies should adopt policies and implement strategic actions to address sustainability. All aspects of sustainability should be incorporated in the curriculum, providing students with the knowledge and skills necessary to address the complex challenges surrounding sustainability throughout their careers. Universities are an essential contributor to the evolving discipline of sustainability and critical to everyone incorporating sustainability thinking into their future roles.

CC:How do you keep well-informed and up to date on sustainability issues?

JS: The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and theInternational Institute for Sustainable Development are three excellent resources that help keep me informed on the latest sustainability issues. I recently completed a certificate in Business Sustainability Management at the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge, and I highly recommend this type of short course to stay up to date as well.

I listen to a lot of podcasts generally, including many focussed on sustainability – The Energy Gang, How to Lead a Sustainable Business , Outrage & Optimism and recently, Who Cares Wins. Finally, I always recommend Yvon Chouinard’s well known book about how he built his company Patagonia – Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.  


Joanne Sheahan

Enterprise Ireland


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