De Beers Group’s Senior Vice President of Sustainable Impact talks to us about what it means to lead boldly, in a different way. Passionate about making a positive difference, it’s easy to be swept along by Katie’s energy, enthusiasm and her desire to succeed – not only for her industry, but for our society.
“Years ago when I told people what I did for a living, they didn’t know what it was,” laughs Katie Fergusson. We’re discussing sustainability and how it has evolved from a niche area – something ‘nice to do on the side’ – into a core business focus, and she lights up with pride. “At De Beers Group we now have thousands of people coming together around a shared goal, a shared vision and a shared journey, which is all the support you need to create real change. It’s what keeps me jumping out of bed each morning.”
This week, this shared vision that defines the company’s longstanding sustainability strategy, called ‘Building Forever’, is reinforced as a progressive ten-year plan. Four years in the making, the project has brought together people from every corner of the business – be it ecology, anthropology, finance or HR – to carve out ambitious goals against four pillars. These include leading ethical practices across the diamond industry, partnering for thriving communities, protecting the natural world and accelerating equal opportunity – the latter including gender parity across the workforce, supporting women entrepreneurs and increasing diversity. Together, these initiatives will positively impact millions of lives.
“At De Beers Group we now have thousands of people coming together around a shared goal, a shared vision and a shared journey”
Katie is here to tell us more…
When you created Building Forever, what did you hope to achieve? We set out to unite the business around our consistent sustainability focus areas and ultimately, to connect in a meaningful way with consumers. Diamonds are a symbol of meaning and connection. For someone giving or receiving a diamond, they need to be aware and proud of the positive impact it has had along its journey. Consumers want to buy from purpose-led brands; they want to know the brand’s values align with their own.
What is launching this week is now so much bigger than any of us thought. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on. Our ambition and leadership commitment just grew and grew. And what’s happened over this crazy year has meant that so many trends and issues that we’ve been seeing in sustainability have accelerated.
Diamonds are a symbol of meaning and connection. For someone giving or receiving a diamond, they need to be aware and proud of the positive impact it has had along its journey.
Among its many targets, by 2030 De Beers Group is promising to be carbon neutral across its own operations. Tell us more. To realize our carbon neutrality goal, we have three areas of focus: to reduce, replace and recover. Reduce is about reducing energy intensity through operating efficiencies, but also through FutureSmart™ mining technologies, aimed at making mining more sustainable, with lower emissions and less water use. Replace is about replacing fossil fuels in our trucks and vessels, and replacing fossil fuelled electricity. We have identified 13 high impact projects that will get us the majority of the way there, focused around renewables, including solar and hydropower. For the remaining emissions, we’re investing in innovation like CarbonVault™, a pioneering research programme to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, locking it away for millions of years inside kimberlite, the rocks in which diamonds are found.
Another impressive goal is that by 2030, De Beers Group pledges to have supported four jobs across our partner countries for every one job at our operations, while continuing to create a more inclusive and diverse culture within the business. We’re building a pipeline, engaging and supporting women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math from school to university, through to their careers. The mining industry has been historically male-dominated, which is changing fast, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to show young women that this is a place where they can develop exciting careers.
De Beers Group has already achieved so much in the sphere of sustainability. What are in your views the essential principles to drive impact and contribute to creating positive sustainable change? In order to drive bold and systemic change for the long term, it is essential that sustainability is a core part of your business. It must define the principles of how you operate. That is why we have brought everything together and set ourselves forward-looking and clear targets that we’re accountable for, embedding this through every part of the business. We have new solutions and new long-term partnerships to make lasting impact.
Among these partners are Stanford Graduate School of Business and UN Women, working with De Beers to realise our livelihoods and diversity goals respectively, while Fauna & Flora International is among the organizations working on our biodiversity initiatives to save endangered species and habitats where we operate.
“In order to drive bold and systemic change for the long term, it is essential that sustainability is a core part of your business. It must define the principles of how you operate.”
We also aligned with the development plans of our producer countries and engaged local communities and employees. We ensured we were aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with partners, stakeholders and key opinion formers. We created roadmaps for each of our goals and we have a ‘goal lead’ who is responsible for each target.
Tell us more about you. How did you get into sustainability? At university I studied law, but I did find some of it rather dry. It was only through discovering international human rights law and international relations that I knew I wanted a career in sustainability, with the opportunity to work on large, complex global challenges and issues that involved lots of different stakeholders. I realized business has more than a responsibility, it has a real opportunity to be a positive force – part of the solution. Ultimately, this is what led me to ethical mining, De Beers Group and diamonds.
What do you love most about your job? I get to work with incredible people. When the pandemic hit, the response from our employees, community and supply chain was mind-blowing. We managed to coordinate a community response of nearly $11 million, with testing machines, PPE, and cleaning products, and we provided access to sanitation and food parcels for vulnerable groups and supported public health campaigns. We never thought it would have been possible in such a short space of time. We learned new ways of working – and everything was achieved remotely.
Before the lockdown, I could also honestly say that every day was different. My role is leading the Sustainable Impact team. Sitting under my team is Building Forever, our social impact work, equity and inclusion work and biodiversity and environmental partnerships. What I love about our business is that we’re constantly being innovative, trying out new solutions and we’re stretching ourselves to make a positive impact. You get a totally different mindset when you’re stretched.
What’s the proudest moment of your career? I was lucky enough to be among the people working on our Moving Giants program with the Peace Parks Foundation, so I got to be present at the relocation of the first 50 elephants to be transported from South Africa to Mozambique. Their relocation is the longest elephant translocation ever attempted and it’s not only saving the herd, but two ecosystems. We’ve now learned that the first elephants have given birth to calves in their new home which shows they are settling well and the program so far is a success.
How has your working life transformed over the past eight months? I’ve been in back-to-back video meetings! I think everyone in this position needs to look after themselves better, with better empathy and communication. People need to be given flexibility to plan their work the way it needs to be. I hope that stays with us in the future and that it can be the silver lining from this experience. Another silver lining has been time at home with my family.
Do you find your work in sustainability filters into your everyday life? I’ve got to say I have such great empathy for today’s consumer. In a world of everything running at a million miles an hour, to build sustainability into every decision you’re making is hard. As a busy working mum I really try. I’m positive I don’t get it right 100% of the time, but we do try. At school, children today learn so much about the environment, so my kids challenge everything we do in the house. We actually had to prove we use renewable electricity to our children by showing them the bill for our house consumption. My children are also incredibly curious what companies can do for wildlife and society, so they end up being my sounding board and my most critical stakeholders – and cheerleaders! I love this!
“There are many different ways of being strong. Leading boldly is also about innovation, being prepared to invest, trial and test, try new solutions and invest time and energy in partnerships.”
Who do you most admire in your career? Anyone who is prepared to constructively challenge and push to be bolder. In my career, I’ve been drawn to mentors who are a bit different from the stereotypical image of a ‘leader’. I believe underlying qualities can be being authentic, being vulnerable and being yourself. There are many different ways of being strong. Leading boldly is also about innovation, being prepared to invest, trial and test, try new solutions and invest time and energy in partnerships. I can’t emphasize the last one enough. No one organization can do this by themselves. We’ve created Building Forever for the long term, and we’re constantly learning. Learn more here Building Forever 2030 Goals – De Beers Group.