Our Zelda: “I don't think anyone chooses to go into insurance”

“I remember asking about using recycled paper. The answer always came back: it clogs the printers – we can’t possibly do that.” Zelda Bentham, Group Head of Sustainability, on how far we’ve come in her 31 years at Aviva.

I remember asking about using recycled paper. The answer always came back: it clogs the printers – we can’t possibly do that.” Zelda Bentham, Group Head of Sustainability, on how far we’ve come in her 31 years at Aviva and finding positivity in the face of a threat set to become the leading cause of conflict and wars by 2050.  

I heard about the first World Climate Conference in Geneva on John Craven's Newsround in 1979. I was eight at the time, and the world was changing.

Then we had ozone depletion. We had acid rain. We had Chernobyl.

When Chernobyl happened, we were all brought together in the gymnasium at school. We were told, ‘the wind will carry the radiation to the Lake District’ - only an hour away. It was here. It was really scary.

It seemed to me there were a growing number of man-made issues impacting our planet and the very air that we breathe. Climate change for one needed to be understood and tackled. So, when I was doing my A-levels, I chose social biology: a combination of biology, geography and economics. Those three things went together quite well in terms of starting to understand the issues and going forward from there.

On career aspirations

I left school after my A-levels. Friends who went to university to study landscape architecture were going into sales for Coca Cola, if they could get a job at all. I wanted to be a Forest Ranger for the Forestry Commission, but I settled for insurance (I don’t think anyone chooses to go into insurance). I started working in general insurance claims at Aviva in 1989.

I remember one customer who’d had a house fire and we were redecorating his property. He asked if the contractor could use low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints. At that time, it was like, what? What are low VOC paints? He explained that his child suffered from severe asthma and VOC particles would exacerbate that.

So, there were macro challenges – floods and windstorms – and micro challenges, but real things that were important to people.

On that letter

In 1997, Aviva got a letter. That letter started my career in sustainability.

It warned that floods would increase. Windstorms would increase. You need to get your act together to face the environmental impacts that are going to hit your business, it said.  

Aviva went on to employ the man who wrote the letter – an environment manager from NatWest. I joined his small team and we set up the environment programme. We started measuring the impact of our paper use, our energy, our furniture, our business travel – all those operational things. 

Back then, people thought, ‘Oh, here’s just another project, just another thing to keep us occupied while we do insurance.’ Tackling climate change was seen to be the right thing to do but there was low recognition of its direct impacts on people and business.

We did a lot of banging on doors and getting told no. Then, in 2002, things began to change.

On breakthroughs

We got a call from operations saying, ‘we have an opportunity to purchase renewable electricity. Is that something that we should do?’

‘Yes, definitely. Let’s do that.’

We could only purchase 20% of our electricity from renewable sources because there wasn't that much around at the time. But that grew and grew until we got to 100% renewable electricity in the UK business.

By 2006 we had a good handle on our operational carbon emissions. We wanted to offset those emissions by purchasing carbon credits that would neutralise the emissions we were creating.

We took two papers to the Board. The first asked the Board to sign off a statement on climate change, which they did. I remember finalising the wording on a rainy camping holiday in Yorkshire.

The second asked if we could purchase carbon credits to minimise our operational impact. The Board wanted to know what return we would get. We said, ‘it doesn’t get a return. It’s a purchase. We get a certificate.’ They weren’t very impressed with that.

So, we revisited it to understand what other benefits purchasing carbon credits provided. As a result, we started purchasing credits to help community projects in developing countries.

We’ve been carbon neutral for one and half decades – quite a good legacy that we continue to talk about today. Over 1.5 million people’s lives improved through things like reducing indoor air pollution and providing safe drinking water. 

On helping communities

We were able to identify social benefits of things like clean cookstoves. Previously communities in Kenya were cooking on three-stone fires inside the home. Three stones and a pile of wood on top of it. They would go through seven bundles of firewood a day to cook their food and boil water, and black carbon (soot) would be inhaled causing respiratory problems. 

Clean cookstoves reduced that to one bundle of wood a day. It meant people weren't collecting wood all the time or spending significant income on it. And it meant there was more time, particularly for mothers, to do other things - so it empowered women and increased living standards.

We also purchased credits for clean water – gravity-fed water filtration projects. In a lot of developing countries, people were either risking waterborne disease or spending an awful lot of time and money boiling water.

On urgency

You get used to things that you know. Acid rain is still around. It’s reduced over the years but it’s still happening and being addressed slowly.

But there is a sense of urgency that we need to do more today. There are issues that keep newly cropping up that we need to find answers to, we need to find solutions to.

It's not just about floods and storms anymore. It's about respiratory illness. It's about extreme temperatures and the impact on our health and even on lives as a result of climate change.

I read that in Pakistan in springtime, they start digging mass graves for heatwaves that will occur later in the year. It’s done in spring because it will be too hot to dig those graves later. Increasingly, there will be people that just haven't got the capacity to cope with the extreme weather.

There’s a transition from things happening around us to things happening to us. That’s really making people sit up and listen.

On deep hope

I have a little line on my email signature which says I have a deep hope that, in whatever we do, we raise our consciousness, notice the wider implications of our actions, and make changes for societal good.

You can do the smallest things, like whether I take the car to the shops a mile away or whether I walk. Day to day things. Recycling, switching off lights - I'm still nagging my kids to do that. They say, ‘we’ve got solar panels on the roof, it doesn't matter’. Yes, it does.

Another thing everyone can do is understand where their pension money is invested. Around 2014, we had a customer focus group about sustainability. There was a lady in her twenties, and we were quite surprised she had a pension. After we got over that, she said, ‘I'm going to be investing in my pension for the next 40 or 50 years. I want my pension to create the future I want to retire into.’

Of course, that's what everybody wants. But she vocalised it: the appreciation that money doesn't go into a black hole, that when it reappears at retirement, it will have had an impact all the way through the life of that pension pot – it could be positive, it could be negative.

For Aviva, as an insurance company, we can do the everyday operations pieces - using recycled paper, switching to renewable energy etc. But by order of magnitude, the climate impact that we have from our investments - it is massive.

We always say, we can't do it alone. We have to work with companies we invest in; we have to work as an industry to remove barriers and have smart regulation that moves the whole of the economy to low carbon impact. That’s the ultimate focus for us - the most material impact we can make.

On positive momentum

You know, in Canada local communities have already been moved off islands because of sea level rise. They've had to migrate. Millions more people have had to migrate because of climate change.

People need land to survive on and if there’s water scarcity, if there’s extreme heat… people need to go somewhere and it's going to cause problems. By 2050, US defence agencies say that climate change is going to be the leading cause of conflict and wars.

But once positive momentum really gets moving, I think we will achieve an awful lot more than we think we can today. That's what keeps me positive.

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