Sustainability is really about efficiency, says manager

Driving environmental sustainability at a petrol retailer seems counterintuitive at best; at worst, being on a hiding to nothing.

Gerri Ward, the sustainability manager at Z Energy, was even accused by a workmate at her old employer, the Department of Conservation, of selling out and going to the dark side when she joined Z two years ago.

"It feels a hell of a lot lighter to me," she says. The NZX-listed petrol station operator has lofty goals to reduce its environmental impact - everything from cutting landfill waste by 70 per cent to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels.

"We're very straight up about that fact that we contribute to climate change, which is the biggest environmental threat of our time, and we are in a uniquely central position to do something about that.

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"So the fact that I get to sit at the table with the senior leaders of New Zealand's biggest fuel retailer and materially shift the dial on the biggest environmental threat of our time is hugely compelling and where else would someone with my values and drivers want to be?" asks Ward.

The firm's focus on sustainability is baked in, based on operational values created when the brand was set up in 2011 after Infratil and the Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation bought the retail assets of international oil firm Shell.

"And it's seen as a commercial opportunity." Research released by Colmar Brunton last month pointed to an increase in the influence that sustainability has on purchasing decisions in most business categories, in part driven by demand from younger generations.

"Consumers are ahead of business when it comes to their expectations around sustainability and there is a marginal commercial benefit to be had in producing sustainable products and services," says Ward.

"Businesses make assumptions about the fact that consumers don't want that, or they're dismissive of it ... and because Z has always had that consistent focus on sustainability this is really just natural to us; it's the right thing for us to do as a company."

It's not only consumers who are getting keen on sustainability. Ward says a huge body of evidence shows talent is attracted to businesses that are "doing the right thing sustainably in the environment".

Ward is actively involved in 27 projects, with the big-ticket item being a $21 million biofuels project in Wiri that will produce 20 million litres of biodiesel a year for commercial customers.

It's the only biodiesel project in the world that exists without a government subsidy, she says. "We explicitly state: we are running a sunset business, we are operating in an industry that won't exist in 40 years' time so we need to be there, we need to be ahead of the eight-ball, and coming up with alternative fuels like this is the right thing for a Kiwi-owned company to do."

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More immediately, Z Energy is now 59 per cent of the way to its waste reduction goal, thanks largely to customers dropping rubbish into recycling bins on 103 of its forecourts.

"We've now got by far New Zealand's biggest privately funded, public place recycling scheme." You can't roll out a project like the Wiri biodiesel plant and not recycle your cardboard, says Ward.

Z Energy has about 20 sustainability goals it aims to have ticked off next year.

When Ward was presented with these at her job interview two years ago, she discovered her first task was to work out the current baselines.

Some of the cuts to waste are fairly aspirational, but Ward says Z Energy would rather get 75 per cent of the way towards 20 big goals than tick off 100 per cent of safe targets.

The company is playing the long game, but Ward says there is a real movement away from sustainability being seen as a cost, to it being an opportunity.

"Sustainability is just another word for resource efficiency.

"If you can identify the inefficiencies in your business, get closer to what is going on in a business, attract and retain really good talent and come up with more economically and environmentally responsible products that mean you're going to be around in the long term, that's just good business, that's not a gimmick, that's not doing something because you can afford to."

Ward says there is no mystery about sustainability.

"Sustainability is water, waste, carbon, electricity and transport, and always will be." She says many people are intimidated by the word, when in reality it's about running your business more efficiently, doing what's important to your customers, doing what's important to your business and reaping the rewards.

"I genuinely think this is a really big game worth playing and the opportunity is genuinely vast and we're really leaning into that and it's exciting."