Hello and welcome back to HappyPorch Radio season seven. Today Barry had the opportunity to speak with Vivian Shi, a Senior Managing Consultant at Oakdene Hollins. Oakdene Hollins work with the private and public sectors to embed sustainable practices, which improve environmental impacts, business efficiency and profitability. I wasn't around to join you in this chat today, Barry. So I'm fascinated to hear how you got on. Yeah. How did it go?
Barry O'Kane 00:37
Yeah, it was all on my lonesome. But luckily, the conversation with Vivian was brilliant. So a couple of things that really stood out for me with this conversation: One is the background that Vivian has in material science and engineering is something that I really related to. And then she wanted to take that technical skill and apply it to the work that she's doing now. And she described her personal journey and how that happened, and so on, which I really enjoyed. And then we talked a lot about how that background and those skills and how important and how useful it is to be able to use that to solve these, again, the theme within this whole season to look at these complex, difficult, challenging problems. One of the things I enjoyed, actually, that she talked about was working not just with companies, but with trade organisations. So organisations that represent a big sector, or they represent multiple companies. And I thought that was an interesting different lens on this type of consulting.
Emily Swaddle 01:29
Great, you know, I love a personal story, you know, a journey to get into this stuff. So that's really exciting. And also this whole, this big picture stuff that we're talking about this season. It's really, as you say, is bringing out some themes, and I'm excited to hear another perspective on it.
Barry O'Kane 01:42
Yeah, it's pretty cool. Let's get on and do the conversation. So without any further ado, let's meet Vivian.
Vivian Shi 01:49
My name is Vivian Weijia Shi. I work as a sustainability consultant at a UK based consultancy called Oakdene Hollins, a small consultancy focused on the intersection of Net Zero and Circular Economy.
Barry O'Kane 02:02
Awesome. And welcome to HappyPorch Radio.
Vivian Shi 02:05
Happy to be here.
Barry O'Kane 02:06
So actually, that's kind of fun. You mentioned a UK Consultancy, Oakdene Hollins, but you're based in Canada, right?
Vivian Shi 02:13
Yes, I actually have jumped around a little bit. I originally moved from China to Canada back in 2010. So I kind of had my formative years in Canada, Montreal to be specific. I trained as a Materials Engineer, at McGill University in Montreal, and jumped over to do a Master's in the UK. And that's how I sort of ended up in the UK.
Barry O'Kane 02:37
Awesome. So material science, so that sounds like there was a bit of an interest in this work. Have you always been interested in this work? What led to the circularity and the net zero consultancy?
Vivian Shi 02:47
I actually managed to never hear about, never learn about Circular Economy in my four years of engineering school. I think it was also a period when sustainability was just or at least popping on my radar. It wasn't everywhere in the curriculum or in, you know, the public discourse yet. I found out about the concept actually towards near finishing my degree, I started becoming interested in more the business side of the world as well, apart from materials engineering. So I've been sort of participating in business case studies here and there. And one of the studies I joined, was actually featuring a chemical recycling company for polystyrene. In their pitch, they use the word Circular Economy. And that was my intro, I was like, Oh, this is such an interesting engineering solution to a very obvious visible problem. I was just sort of really intrigued, it really clicked for me like, of course, you don't want to throw anything away, you want to conserve resources. So I sort of just went down the rabbit hole that way. And after graduating, after some soul searching I decided I wanted to go into the sustainability. So that's why you know, the Masters and by chance, I also came across Oakdene Hollins when I was doing my Masters, so that's how the journey began.
Barry O'Kane 04:06
Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by soul searching. Do you mean in terms of choosing a career direction, what led to that?
Vivian Shi 04:13
Yeah, so my very first work experience internship was at the oil and gas industry and also as a materials engineer, engineering undergrad student. I don't know how the situation is right now. But when I was just starting out, the career options were fairly limited. So you know, it's oil and gas or some kind of extractive industry. So mining and the processing, metallurgy, steel making where engineering consultancy, that's also a very common outlook. I decided that it was not really my interest for a variety of reasons. I'm not gonna go into here now. But yeah, I eventually decided that I wanted something that is a bit more balanced in the technical side and also sort of looking at the big picture type of work. And so yeah, Masters provided me a way of exploring that and kind of switching lanes a little bit.
Barry O'Kane 05:09
Yeah, that's really interesting. You also used two phrases that I wanted to pick out: one when you said it's an obvious solution to an engineering challenge. But then, sort of stepping back and looking at the big picture, So, as you, sort of, made that transition and looking to move into sustainability, into Circular Economy, can you tell us a little bit more, first of all, what you mean by the obvious solution to the engineering challenge?
Vivian Shi 05:29
So back to the original case, that piqued my interest, it was about polystyrene recycling, I think before then, the training, the materials engineering courses have been very focused on how do you make stuff and how do you make stuff better, stronger, more efficient, right, like energy wise, or in terms of processing materials, of course, we talk about the environmental implications as well. But it was more around pollution control on things like that. I don't think we focus a lot on the waste aspect or turning what's used and, you know, materials transforming to products. And what do we do when we no longer use the products. So the other half of that lifecycle was not really the focus of my curriculum. And when you see companies or individuals interested in that investing time energy in that half the problem, you start to think sure, like that problem applies to our daily life, like, we will look around the products that we buy, things will consume. So I think that's just sort of it was a light bulb. Of course, we had to deal with it, someone has to work on solutions to deal with that, then you start to look around, you can see the problem of waste everywhere, I think.
Barry O'Kane 06:41
Yeah, I could not agree with that more. One of the themes of this season of the podcast, and something that I'm always keen to call out, is how sort of professional and technical skills, engineering in your case, is something that is being able to use those skills to see that other half as you've described. To actually be part of this broader positive. And trying not to be so cheesy with my phrasing the circularity and positive rather than, just as you said, seeing and sort of discovering that there isn't just, Hey, there's a magic place where things go away to. And we can continue to just, you know, feed that as if it's some sort of amazing black hole. But actually, there's an exciting opportunity. And this is what maybe my next question for you is, an exciting opportunity. So when you started working in that space, and you did the Masters in this role, what did that part of the journey look like?
Vivian Shi 07:27
Yeah, I think it was a huge learning curve for me going from engineering to the Masters itself, because the Masters curriculum is so focused on very high level, very system thinking type of approach. At first, I think my engineering core-self was like, I think this is too vague, I don't know how I feel about this. I don't really, like everything makes sense. But it doesn't feel very tangible. I think, so that part of me was resisting a little bit. But eventually, you know, the curriculum was fantastic. And the cohort was fantastic. And I think I learned to embrace that kind of ambiguity and complexity, that is inherent in a lot of the sustainability conversations. I still tried to, kind of, embrace my engineering self and try to be very practical, and to balance it out a little bit. But I think that is a huge skill that I think I learned from the year is, as I said, trying to find a way out in a very complex situation. And I think that's the core expectation for consultancies that people come to you for advice, or help them problem solving, and sustainability challenges interwoven in business challenges and everything else going on in the world. It's a very complex situation. Again, it was another huge learning curve for me in the consulting environment, because then you are expected to sort of help structure something that is inherently very, very messy. And you have to try to find a solution for different people with different interests and perspectives. So yeah, that was another interesting chapter. Yeah.
Barry O'Kane 09:06
That is interesting. I often think as well that as engineers or software engineering, in my case, we talk about how we enjoy complex problems. And then you put it in the context of what you're describing out. There's like that the context, the systems part of it, where it's not just we're trying to solve this very clearly defined tiny box of a problem, but trying to fit it into this bigger picture. To me, that feels like an opportunity for the engineer, for the technical brain to go, Well, here's an even more fascinating, much more difficult problem. So it's not a, I mean, it is also difficult and scary, but there's an opportunity for that skill set to really make a difference. What's the consultancy like? Tell us a little bit about the types of work that you do and the projects and the companies you work with?
Vivian Shi 09:47
Yeah, so at Oakdene Hollins I sometimes like to tell people that we sort of punch above our weight. We're quite a small team, I think we're probably around mid 20s. But we do work with a huge range of clients and sectors and we deliver different kinds of work. So, for example, I often categorise our client portfolio into industry categories. So there's obviously the private sector, then there's the public sector, and there is the trade associations, industry associations. So a lot of our work, I think, historically, and this is before my time, has been focused on the public sector, you know, a lot of kind of law reports, evidence basis for policy making. And more recently, I think we have more shifted towards to the other pillars, where we do a lot of work with trade associations that is supporting them to think about how the entire sector can align themselves with the sustainability agenda. I will say, more specifically, associations are interested in topics like How do we get this sector to net zero? What targets or what pathways can we take? And more technical issues, for example, work a lot with the mattress sector. And they want to understand, Okay, what does a sustainable mattress look like? A very simple, straightforward question at face value. And when you dig into it, you start to, again, go back into the complexity issue, start unravelling. And there's a lot of dimensions to that question. So we work with the members and the association, sort of, leadership team, to try to, you know, put those different challenges into buckets and work through that collaboratively. So that's one example with a trade association. And we work a lot with the private sector, ranging from very small companies, local companies, to multinationals, and you know, the type of work ranges from Help us figure out what our net zero target and action plan should be, there's a very defined problem to a very technical issue, for example, how do I define recyclability of my products for a multinational electronics company? So it's really, everywhere in between.
Barry O'Kane 12:09
One of the things I've always thought would be fun, and it sounds like from what you describe, is the variety of work you get to be involved in. Is that fun? Or is it like, Oh, it's a bit challenging? I have to keep so many things in the air?
Vivian Shi 12:21
Yeah, I think it's definitely both. And I think like any job, it's, I mean, to be very frank, it has good days and bad days, right? Like good days is I feel very fortunate to be a sustainability consultant in case I feel like, you know, the three circles of ikigai. Like, what you get, you know, you get money in, what's good for the world, I think I have landed on middle of the diagram. But you know, there are challenging days where, as a consultant, you're always chasing that lines. There are things that go out of your control, there is the pressure of juggling different projects, different priorities. So I can't say it's all sort of sunny and blue sky. But I think at the end of the day, when you sort of push through difficult projects, or that feeling of satisfaction is worth it.
Barry O'Kane 13:12
That's pretty powerful what you're describing there. And actually, for anybody that is now listening, it's an interesting thing to go and check out the Ikigai, I can never pronounce the word properly. Ikigai is the three circles and finding the right place, because that's a pretty strong motivator in terms of internal feeling, reward, whoever you are, but also then a platform, a vehicle to push through those tough periods that you're describing. So let's explore a little bit of what you mentioned about some of the things you've touched on there, the sort of crossover between net zero and circularity. Is it a case that a lot of the motivation for the clients, the different types of clients you're working with, is coming from, you know, a kind of a pressure to be net zero, and maybe a very "beginner-ish", if that's the right word ,view of what that problem is a very simplistic view of what their problem is. Or are you finding that the clients you work with are actually further down the road? You know, there's less education you need to do and you're actually digging into the next stage of solving the problems?
Vivian Shi 14:06
Yeah well, I actually want to take a step back, because I think our company, what we do actually started from recycling, I think, was the genesis of the company. So it was when recycling was a new concept. And I remember the veterans in the company telling me about having to convince people that recycling is beneficial. I can make them money, or I can save them money. So I would say probably for a very long time companies look at recycling or over time sort of economy as a way to save money or as a way to look for new opportunities to innovate and maybe develop different products and services and expand their company. So I would say it is actually a very commercial angle that they have been taking.There is such a natural overlap between Circular Economy and the whole climate action landscape. And I think for the longest time, that was the missing link, we intuitively understand the benefits of conserving materials and eliminating waste. But how does that translate into carbon and sort of this global agenda, and I think that connection was made in the past, probably five, six years. we started to pick that up and more translating between materials and carbon, and that kind of converged into one. So back to the clients, you know, sometimes they can be very knowledgeable, already doing a lot of the Circular Economy stuff, but they have issues or trouble translating that into carbon figure or translating into fitting that into a net zero strategy, because net zero often will look at the 2040-2050 timeline, and some businesses find it very difficult to, kind of, plan for that. So you have to work with them to set more near term targets and look at the current state, how to fit, how to use Circular Economy as one of the ways to, kind of, start getting that momentum going. So I think it is definitely a range of maturity that we're working with.
Barry O'Kane 16:13
That's interesting, too. Couple of things to pick out. And I think to explore in a little bit more detail, if you don't mind what you just said. So, just quickly, if you wouldn't mind, just talking a little bit more about what you mean by the relationship, or the impact of circularity can have on carbon and what the kind of connections are there, to sort of flesh that out a bit?
Vivian Shi 16:31
Originally, when we worked on circular economy, we focused more on the aspects of, again, consumer materials, eliminating waste, like very physical terms. And I believe, a couple years back, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with Material Economics, I think they’re a Sweden based consultancy, they decided to quantify the carbon saving opportunity of Circular Economy. And I think their conclusion was that around 45% of the global emissions could be reduced in association with products and materials. So things like carbon intensive materials like cement, steel, plastics, aluminium. So you know that those are the primary materials that make up the fabrics of our life. So they quantify the size of opportunity, if we were to, you know, treat these materials smarter, we are saving carbon, probably a lot of companies will be saving money as well. So kind of, again, strengthening the case for Circular Economy. And more recently, I think with the topic of biodiversity, and more broadly, the planetary boundaries being highlighted more and more, again, circular economy touches on so many dimensions, because the very act of extracting and transforming materials, it has a multifaceted impact on our ecosystem, right? So naturally, when we dig into how we could intervene, use it to look at multiple benefits, and not just carbon, although carbon is usually the one that…
Barry O'Kane 18:13
…gets the headlines. And something else you mentioned, that always is an important part of the conversation is the commercial case, because I think so many people make the mistake of solely relying on the importance of the environmental case. But it's the commercial case that is the driver for that right within a business in the day to day practical things. And if that's where the Circular Economy, whether that's saving or opening up new opportunities, that's for me, it feels like those things can be aligned. And there's some excitement there. And then as you said, if you align that with carbon impacts, and then look at the potential biodiversity improvements from supply, suddenly there's all these positive things that feel like it's a, as you said at the start, the obvious solution. So if you can, it'll be interesting, to sort of, make that a little bit more concrete. When we talk about the carbon impact. When you're working with a client and looking at the materials they're using, can you give us some examples of practical like, how do you go from Here is this materias, to let's do this, some sort of, carbon reporting and feed that back into how we change whether the supply chain or materials or design of the product or whatever? Is there some sort of concrete examples you can share?
Vivian Shi 19:21
Sure, I mean, we can go back to the mattress example, I think everyone can relate to. So there are different types of mattresses, yes. And mattresses, if you ever cut it open, it can actually be quite complex in terms of the types of materials in there and how they're combined together. So we have been working with a lot of mattress manufacturers as well as suppliers to, first of all, look at what is the current state of mattress design? You know, what typically goes in there? How the materials joined together, you know, stapled or glued or different types of attachments. I think we also invited recyclers to show mattress recyclers to show us when these mattresses do end up on their sites. How are they taken apart? And what materials are taken out and has potential value. And essentially, how do they disassemble a mattress and make something out of what we see as junk,. So it is different, the recyclers have different processes, but you know, you quickly realise how difficult it is to take it apart, because it's not meant to be taken apart. It's not designed to be. And so that gives us an idea of Okay, we now know what materials are in there. So we can now go back to the supply chain to understand, Okay, let's say a polyurethane foam pad, how is it made? What are all the ingredients cycle in there, where do those ingredients come from, and you start to build up a carbon profile of the raw ingredients, and then you have to process energy and additives. And eventually it bakes into a foam block. And then you have the transport energy. So it's kind of tracing back the steps and adding up the carbon at each stage. Same thing for other materials, like steel springs, or fabric covers. So each of that component has its own profile and its own carbon story accumulated over the different steps when we look back. So now once we have that baseline picture, we can go back to the clients to say, Okay, we have looked at your supply chain, we have looked at your materials, profile and other sources of emissions into, essentially, make and deliver a product, you pick out what's critical. So usually it's the materials that are used the most. Now here comes the challenges, because sometimes manufacturers and suppliers can be protective of their design and sort of recipe in making a product. And also there can be very limited alternatives that can demonstrate a better environmental portfolio, let's say. So sometimes it can be a trade off, right? If you went for, let's say, natural materials, you might intuitively think, okay, it's all natural, maybe the carbon footprint will be lower. It's not always that clear cut, depending on how the material is sourced or where it's coming from. So it's very difficult to make decisions without hard data. And even if you had hard data, I think it's good practice to challenge that data because you know, you don't know what assumptions were built into that number. So it becomes a very lengthy process to something that looks like a simple decision of Should I use this material or that material. And that's just on a carbon front, right, it's not even folding into you know, the feel of fabric and the feel of the spring and how the customer is gonna like it. So it quite quickly explodes into a very complicated decision. But I think that's where, you know, the expertise of the manufacturers factory, right, they have to do that trade off. And the consultant's role is to say, you know, from these criteria in terms of carbon and other environmental factors, here are your options. And you know, if you do that and look at material as well as product, so you choose the right material, the next step is how you put the product together. And that in there, there's a lot of opportunity as well. So I think it is kind of like reverse engineering, you kind of try to walk through each decision and help the manufacturers or help the suppliers as well and think about their process or think about their products in a different way.
Barry O'Kane 23:42
That's brilliant, thank you for that. It gets a little tiny insight into what you were talking about before, about the complexity of it, not just the complexity as in the amount of different data and sort of trying to trace and work all that out. But also the difficulty of getting that information. As you said reverse engineering. When some people in the supply chain may or not have the data and will be very happy to share it as a proper challenge.
Vivian Shi 24:04
Yeah, I will say that is the word, probably that is uttered the most is data by consultants or if that's shared by others. Or, as a sustainability profession as well is, and it's so crucial to baselining. And so crucial to understanding what you need to focus your energy on. And of course for measuring your progress. So yes, data is a constant challenge. I think there are a lot of coalitions and industry initiatives that is trying to tackle that challenge, by having a kind of, more comprehensive approach instead of individual companies firing questions to suppliers and making a big mess out of it.
Barry O'Kane 24:49
One of the things that I'm interested in, in that work is the tooling and the software, I mean, and the way that you do that work and looking at the data. Are there, like the existing information systems that are used? Are they able to answer? Are they, kind of, in the way sometimes for understanding ? Because they'll be all optimised for this information flow the other way, like, so linear stuff, we need to get as many of this product from here as fast as possible. So do you find that you can use existing systems? Or do you have to, you know, is there existing tools you can use? Or is it a much more manual process in some cases?
Vivian Shi 25:26
Yeah, I think a lot of the times the data comes across need cleaning and a lot of manual process. And sometimes as you said, the original system is not set up to help with carbon accounting. The most typical issue we run into is that things are recorded in currencies or recorded in units of purchase than not in, let's say, weight or volume to the physical measures. And so typically, that requires a lot of assumptions to translate, say, units purchased into kilograms of steel, kilograms of aluminium, things like that, so that we can eventually culminate all of that into a carbon number, right? If you think about a laptop, you buy one laptop, but if you need to break it down into materials and weights, it's a nightmare.
Barry O'Kane 26:21
Thank you for that, I can totally imagine that. That's exactly what I see as well. And one of the things that I think, as I mentioned before, one of the themes in this season of the podcast and HappyPorch Radio generally, is kind of shining a light on the opportunities for those of us and professionals with professional skill sets and, or with business owners or whatever, who aren't, who feel like it's not directly working on circularity, or working in sustainability or something. But in that example, you just mentioned, if some of that tracking software did something as simple as provide some more data that would require somebody in that process to understand Well, this data is useful because it's going to be useful for carbon accounting, or it's going to be useful for the waste for the recyclers or the repurposes at the end. Just a little bit of knowledge there and a little bit of planning and some of the tooling can significantly change the whole flow process. And I think there's something there that, in my opinion, is a really important message for us to try and get everybody excited about.
Vivian Shi 27:13
Yeah, it is, continuing the terminology of carbon accounting, as that proliferates, I think companies will get under the hood of the tools that they currently use, and start to realise that they need a different set of units for a different set of accounting.
Barry O'Kane 27:29
Wonderful. Thank you so much. So just as we're starting to head towards the end of our time, unfortunately, looking forward, for you, in terms of not just for the work that you're doing and the business, the consultancy, what's next? And where would you like to go over the next year or two?
Vivian Shi 27:44
That's a huge question. And I asked that myself as well. I think what's important for me is that I continue to explore opportunities in that middle of the Diagram Ikigai, right? So I do love sustainability consulting, for the variety and for the constant challenge as well. I think what I'm interested in is really going even a level higher in terms of being able to truly look at systems, the sustainability systems. So back to what I learned in my Master's, and I think a lot of the sustainability consulting, when you're focusing on individual clients and businesses, it can be very hard to bring that system picture into it, because you know, businesses there, they tend to focus more on their own value chains, you know, and I completely understand why they be thinking in that way but there is, I think, opportunity in connecting value chains and also bringing in non commercial entities. So for example, the role of academics or NGOs and both policymakers are working together and cross industries that can be a lot of mutual benefits in exploring some of the opportunities .so that's what I'm really interested in as the next step is kind of, we've already let's say joined the dots, but how can we now join the lines into the next dimension. So yeah, I think that would be very exciting as an individual, but also as a sustainability consultant.
Barry O'Kane 29:12
Yeah, awesome. I totally hear what you're saying. That's pretty exciting. And I hope that you do more of and keep up the good work and do more of that in the future. That would be awesome. And just finally, before we finish up, for those who've been listening and who want to find out more about yourself or Oakdene Hollins, where should they go?
Vivian Shi 29:28
Well, so you can go to our website, just google Oakdene Hollins. And you can also think search value retention. That is one of the things that our company has been advertising a lot for our clients, we also focus on remanufacturing. So if you ever want to read about remanufacturing, you’ll probably come across all of our work as well. You can see what kind of work we do.
Barry O'Kane 29:53
Thanks so much. And just for the listeners, that's Oakdene O-A-K-D-E-N-E H-O-L-L-I-N-S.com. Oakdene Hollins. As usual, we'll put all the links in the Show Notes on happyporchradio.com.
Vivian, thank you so much for joining me today. Really appreciate your time.
Vivian Shi 30:07
Thank you for having me. It was such a good chat.
Emily Swaddle 30:13
Thank you for listening to this episode of HappyPorch Radio. You can find past episodes, transcripts and show notes at happyporchradio.com. You can also get in touch with us there and let us know what you think or if you have any ideas or comments. Please rate the podcast, share and subscribe so that more people can find the show.
Barry O'Kane 30:28
Thanks for listening. My name is Barry O'Kane. I founded HappyPorch who fund and support this podcast. At HappyPorch we do technology and software development for purpose led businesses and we're particularly excited about the role of digital as an enabler for the Circular Economy. If you're working on solutions to the big problems we face today, problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and global inequality then let's connect,visit happyporch.com and get in touch.
Emily Swaddle 30:50
And I'm Emily Swaddle, podcaster coach, facilitator and storyteller. You can find me on my other podcast, the Carbon Removal Show, and you can find out more about that project and everything else I do at emilyswaddle.com where you can also subscribe to my Newsletter All about Rest. If you're interested in anything I do, feel free to connect. You can email me on [email protected]