Omnia’s Kavita Pema tells us about the achievable and realistic application of sustainability practices for businesses around the globe
Written by: Marcus Kaapa
“The biggest danger is to separate sustainability and profitability as concepts. When isolated, the two become competing factors of a business rather than complementary parts of a fully integrated process.”
Kavita Pema lives and breathes sustainability in her as Group Executive for Safety, Sustainability and Risk at Omnia.
Based in South Africa, Omnia Group was founded in 1953 and presently supplies various companies with products and services across the globe. The company manufactures and supplies chemicals, specialised services, and solutions for the agriculture, mining, and chemicals application industries, as well as conducting research and development for said industries. Omnia’s ethos surrounds environmental preservation and business sustainability practices, and it promotes such an ethos through its service.
Pema has spent the majority of her career dedicated to the sustainability sector. Originally taking the medical route to train to become a doctor, she realised that her passion lay within ecological sphere after switching to Earth Sciences. Her university studies included environmental management, geography, geology, and advanced earth science. These were the academic tools that gave her an insight into what needed to be achieved to impact the environment in a positive way.
Pema ended up working as a Water Pollution Control Officer for the South African Department of Water Affairs. This position dealt with the states of bodies of water and looking for cooperative solutions alongside industries to address the issues of negative environmental industry impact.
“It felt so rewarding. I built on from there and my expertise grew into a larger environmental focus,” she says.
Omnia was her chance to really make a difference. She had, prior to this point, been working for a competing company as its Group Environment Specialist. Her work saw progress that would lead the group towards targets set for Environmental, Safety and Governance (ESG) performance, and she had no planned intention of leaving.
However, she joined Omnia after realising how much of an impact she could have.
“I have a very strong background in the environmental space and the challenge of building the safety and risk portfolio was very attractive to me,” Pema recalls. “After having a conversation with the management at Omnia, I realised that it would be an extremely good fit.
“The company was open to new ideas and were keen to really build their safety, health, environment, risk and quality profile.”
Pema’s career to date has spanned 25 years, during which she has been part of an advisory team representing South Africa at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.
“It was the most amazing and awe-inspiring experience to sit alongside leaders from different countries and contribute to the development of international policy,” she adds.
On top of this, Pema has chaired the Responsible Care Standing Committee of the Chemical and Allied Industries’ Association. This role saw her as a representative of the board reviewing management practice, strategy development, and training initiatives for the Responsible Care programme (that regards the sustainability of the sector) for four years.
Now, sitting as Omnia’s Group Executive for Safety, Sustainability and Risk, Pema focusses her efforts on industry scale environmental and sustainability practices.
Pema’s work surrounds incorporating environmentally supporting business practices into companies to intertwine the aspects of profit, practicality, and sustainability.
On a broad scale, it is still unrealised that environmentally friendly methods of business are easily applicable and can work in conjunction with the aspects of business that achieve results.
“In my opinion, sustainability and profitability are so closely tied that they cannot succeed without each other and need to be in complete alignment,” she says. “The general perception is that sustainability is a cost, which means it contradicts profitability agendas.
“In the long-run, sustainability actually provides a basis for sound business management which, in turn, saves the business money, builds its credibility, and gives businesses intangible mileage in the form of support and goodwill from its stakeholders. It does not need to be a touchy-feely green thing; it can definitely be a business enabler.”
However, it is now apparent more than ever that companies which do not take sustainability seriously are in danger of suffering a significant loss in reputation and credibility. Across major industries such as mining and construction there are huge issues surrounding their effects on the environment. To this end, Omnia has answered the call to further the sustainability practices of multiple industries such as these.
“With the direction in which the world is moving, sustainability is the top of all agendas across all stakeholders, particularly investors and the new generation,” Pema says. “Businesses are being challenged to create value and contribute to a better world for future generations.
“If we want to make sure we grow as a business and continue to attract the right talent in the future, sustainability is an imperative. Businesses need to show that they are taking their moral responsibility to future generations seriously and that they are addressing the impact of their current activities.”
The recent pandemic has ground many industries to a halt – however, COVID-19’s effects on human activity and behaviour has helped bring about the realisation of the instantaneous benefit to the environment. In response to this, people shifted in their methods of work. Simple differences such as the lack of need for an office environment, due to the large majority of workers being able to work digitally and from their own homes, saw a large decline in commuters and therefore vehicle emissions. This lack of need for a set business HQ allowed companies to realise that they could save money by reducing office numbers, size or space (or getting rid of them altogether).
For Pema, this was one of the many examples of human workplace and business adaptation that proved everything she had worked towards in her career.
“COVID-19 brought about the realisation that by doing something differently,” she says. “We will see a much more beneficial impact on the state of our planet and our businesses. This drove conversations around how we can minimise our impact while continuing to grow businesses and keep the economy thriving.
“The sustainability discussion has changed direction for the better with enhanced business integration. Some of the lessons learned are that we can leverage technology and adapt our practices to reduce our environmental footprint. Remote working and less travelling are a part of this discussion.”
Regarding this adaptation of businesses, ESG is growing in its application within companies in the present day. Proactivity of practices such as these will lead to them being embedded within business strategy as a norm.
“These sound management strategies need to be more intuitive rather than reactive to ensure the resilience of businesses which are focused on being future ready and leaving behind a better world,” Pema concludes.