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John Davies , Sustainability
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The Transition from Health & Safety to Sustainability.

  • Publish Date: Posted 6 months ago

John Davies

​Shirley Parsons speaks to Group Sustainability Delivery Director for DS Smith John Davies, about his transition from Health and Safety into Sustainability.

Route into Health and Safety.

John explains he originally started off in operations and production and his interest in EHS and safety came whilst on the shop floor, through a health and safety committee. This led to him completing a NEBOSH certification.

“It was from there that I became the Head of Environmental, Health, Safety for Baggeridge Brick. They were then acquired by the world’s largest brick manufacturer, and I became the health, safety, and environmental head for that division.

In 2014, I joined CRH as the health, safety and environmental director. They had roughly around 50,000 employees and I mainly covered the East coast and across Europe.”

The start of the transition.

In 2017, and with a young family, the extensive travelling wasn’t suiting John’s family commitments, so he moved positions and went to work for Marshall plc as a Health, Safety and Environmental Director.

“It was from there it merged from environmental into more of a sustainability role. We were already looking at wastewater and those areas that are covered within HSE, but I started to look more into energy and then carbon. From there I became their Sustainability Delivery Improvement Director.”

“Originally, the sustainability aspect of the role was combined with the HSE position, but then they recognised it was a role in itself. Sustainability is a large area. They asked if I would move across to a newly created position, so I did."

Corporate and operational sustainability.

“I quickly realised sustainability is split it into two areas, so I call it corporate and operational. Corporate sustainability is more around the reporting externally through CPD sustainability reports. Then the operational side involves delivering the strategy and the plan to deliver on what we've committed to achieving.”

“In my mind, this involves two different skillsets. A lot of people will do one or other. I’ve had experience in both, but my preference is more the operational side, where you’re developing the business strategy and following that through from start to finish. This works well with how you work with health and safety as well. When you look at it, health and safety and sustainability are very similar.”

John explains that there were technical aspects with the transition into sustainability, and therefore enrolled himself onto a Sustainability Business Practises Diploma Level 7.

“This was really useful. It helped opened other doors and avenues within sustainability, which I knew existed, but I didn’t have the knowledge to build on. You’re also dealing with science-based targets, so I joined several sustainability forums which were key.”

The transition took John between 9-12 months to complete.

“Sustainability is developing all the time, that’s why the forums are important. There are regulations around sustainability, but it’s not as regulated as health and safety. It’s more about an organisation doing the right thing and protecting the planet. It’s driven more by customers and investors.”

The overlap with Health & Safety.

John moved to DS Smith in January 2023 and is now their Group Sustainability Delivery Director.

“It’s interesting. Not only have I come across into sustainability these last 6 years, but I’ve also changed industries too. I wanted a new challenge and felt like it was time. What I liked about DS Smith was their commitment to sustainability and doing what they have promised to deliver.”

“There’s a big overlap with health and safety and it is essentially a part of sustainability. The principles are very similar. You look at eliminating, reducing, and substituting in whatever you’re doing, and you’ve got to have the same thought processes.

One good thing is health and safety has moved forward from being so regulatory. Legally they had to or felt like they had to do it. I think over the last 10 years they've realised that good health and safety systems in a business is about the people and you need to bring those along with you. And that's a good thing, which is required with sustainability.”

“People need to understand what we’re doing it and what they can do to support us. So, I think some of the core skills within a good health and safety professional are definitely required with sustainability.”

Understanding sustainability.

John says that before anybody applies for a new position within sustainability, they need to understand what the role is and have a good understanding about it.

“Once you’ve made that decision, it’s about gaining knowledge and experience. If you can start this in a role you’re already in and take more of an environmental part, like I did, then that’s great. The other option is to get a relevant qualification under your belt to help demonstrate you know what you’re doing.”

“Sustainability is still in its infancy. I’d put it where health and safety was 25 years ago, but it’s going to develop quicker and people are recognising that.”

John admits that trying to find a sustainability qualification to do around his work was difficult.

“I spent lots of hours looking through the different options, and that’s when I found the Level 7 Diploma. There are Open University Sustainability degrees you can do but these start from a lower level. If anyone was thinking about going into sustainability, then I’d definitely suggest doing an environmental qualification first.”

“Sustainability is only going to get bigger and the demand for good sustainable professionals is going to be key. We are all seeing the effects of climate change, and this is driving more businesses and investors. If a company wants to have that competitive edge, they’re going to need to have good sustainability credentials.”

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