Esther Ukala (she/her)
Environmental Compliance Lead, NHS Property Services
My first job out of university was at Perkins Engines as an Environmental Coordinator. I had just completed an undergraduate degree, which included a sandwich year where I had the opportunity to work within the business. It was during this year that I did an internship with Perkins.
Perkins Engines is a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc. – the construction equipment manufacturer. It was great to be able to work for a company in the UK with international reach. My role was in the environment, health and safety team, working on environmental compliance. This is what initiated my decision to pursue a career in environmental management and compliance.
The job at Perkins gave me excellent exposure to what the role of ‘environmentalist’ involves. I was responsible for the evaluation of compliance including creating a legal register, training delivery and regulatory reporting to the Environment Agency.
After this, I went to work for a paper manufacturer covering their waste management system and, after a few years, moved to a renewable energy company where my role was to cover quality and environment as the organisation’s Environment and Quality Manager. From there I joined my current organisation – NHS Property Services.
“Effects of climate change are not idiosyncratic to individual organisations, so I believe a collective approach would help further our agenda quicker.”
I’m now an environmental compliance manager at NHS Property Services. There are three people who report directly to me and a further four who report indirectly. I’m responsible for environmental management system (EMS) implementation, environmental compliance for our portfolio of 3,000 properties, biodiversity, and climate adaptation.
Climate adaptation (as opposed to climate mitigation) has been a major focus for us over the last couple of years, and around 80% of our work is tailored towards the adaptation and retrofitting of existing properties, with 20% on new building stock.
I’ve recently joined IEMA’s biodiversity working group. I’m a full and chartered member and I’m in the process of applying to become a fellow. I have taken part in a range of training, which has been very useful. I’d like to be able to get involved with more networking but it’s difficult. As a working parent of very young children, my parenting responsibilities prevent me from being able to participate in networking events that occur out of work hours.
One challenge I’ve faced has been racism in the workplace. I’m from Zimbabwe and never thought I would experience discrimination in the workplace due to the colour of my skin.
I had some conversations earlier on in my career which shocked me, like people pointing out I was the only person of colour at one employer, and another where a colleague implied that I should be grateful to have been promoted over my white colleagues. Things have improved over the years but there are still a lot of improvements the environment and sustainability sector can make regarding inclusivity.
One of the drawbacks I have experienced is lack of collaboration and consistency across the field as a whole. There is a lot of great work being undertaken, unfortunately it’s mostly in silo and rarely joined up. Working in the public sector, I believe there is value in taking a joint approach in addressing some of the issues we are currently facing, a good example of which is climate adaptation. Effects of climate change are not idiosyncratic to individual organisations, so I believe a collective approach would help further our agenda quicker.
The good news is sustainability is now much more of a priority to both businesses and the general public. Being environmentally responsible is no longer recognised as a nice thing to do, but the right thing to do, and indeed the very thing we must do. As environmentalists we need to leverage this to ensure adequate attention, funding and investment is made towards the implementation of measures that would enable a greener future within our respective industries.
IEMA is the membership body for environment and sustainability professionals