Jack Cunningham “Prudence is key to longer term success”

Jack Cunningham  “Prudence is key to longer term success”
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When it comes to sustainability, Jack Cunningham knows that patience and persistence are key. But as the increasing population threatens the world’s resources, what can we do to make a difference?

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers:
I head up the Sustainability team at Gemfields, the world’s largest supplier of responsibly sourced, exceptionally rare coloured gemstones. I have been an expert in the sustainability sector for the past 15 years working both as a consultant and in-house for some of the world’s biggest brands. I’m married with two small children and live in London.

2. Tell us about your education and what special training you took in this field?
I studied as a Biologist originally and then progressed to take a Masters Degree in Environmental Technology from Imperial College, London.

3. Who or what inspired you to go into a career in sustainability?
I was inspired by a 3-month conservation project I did in Tanzania, mapping virgin coral reefs there with the aim of setting up a sustainable fishery for the local population. It confirmed to me that I wanted to do something with my life that revolved around protecting the environment, but also helping people lead sustainable lives.

4. What does your role as the head of sustainability for Gemfields entail?
I am responsible for developing the group Sustainability and Risk strategy. I also oversee the company’s quality, health, safety, environment community programmes. On a day to day basis this means that I supervise projects at our mines in Mozambique and Zambia to ensure we meet national and international standards regarding health and safety and the environment, and that we follow best practice in terms of our engagement and relationship with the local community. Gemfields is an industry leader in sustainability, it is at the heart of how we operate, and as such I spend at least half my time supporting the commercial and marketing aims of the business by driving improvements and championing transparency in the downstream gemstone and jewellery sector.

5. What are the sustainability goals of Gemfields Plc?
It’s our goal to operate in a way that contributes positively to national and local economies, take a leading role in modernising the coloured gemstone sector and build lasting, sustainable livelihoods for the communities around our mines.
We believe that coloured gemstones should be mined and marketed by championing three key values – credibility, transparency and integrity.

6. Where are the mines located and how often do you visit there?
We have two operations in Zambia – the world’s single largest emerald mine, Kagem – and the world’s single largest Amethyst mine, Kariba. We also have the Montepuez Ruby Mine in Mozambique which is located on one of the most significant ruby deposits discovered in recent history. I travel approximately every 6-8 weeks – mainly to the mines in Africa, but also globally to our other offices or for conferences.

7.Do you have a specific checklist of things to do during your visits to the mines?
I always conduct an operational mine visit as it’s important to see the progress the mine is making. Even though I am not a mining engineer or geologist, it’s crucial to be familiar with the operations and their growth in order to be aware of how health, safety and environmental issues are being managed and improved. I always visit our community projects and partners to find out how they are evolving. We focus on the three areas of health, livelihoods and education with our community projects and it’s personally tremendously satisfying to see these succeed and become a part of the local area. For example, the secondary school we built near Kagem now hosts 800 pupils and achieved great results in their end-of-year exams. We have a number of agricultural projects helping local farming communities and most recently, we opened three new primary schools in Mozambique, straight after launching a mobile health clinic that saw around 8000 patients in the first couple of months. I then spend the remaining few days in meetings with our local sustainability teams, as well as the mine management team.

8.What insight can you share from your visits that would be useful to other people wanting to change norms?

  1. Be patient. Expectations that change occurs quickly have to be quickly managed otherwise frustration can set in; carefully laid plans can easily be derailed or delayed. In my experience, projects that are put in place quickly without proper research and community engagement also don’t succeed in the long-term.
  2. Be persistent: change only occurs if you are relentless in pursuing a goal – what may not seem important to some people still has to be achieved.
  3. Communicate relentlessly: feedback and coaching is crucial to give people the energy and confidence to push forward.

9.What are the big barriers or frustrations you face to achieving change?
In our sector, it is the expectation that Gemfields has solved all the problems or that we are operating at the same level as a super-major mining company. Mining is a long, slow process and issues of sustainability cannot be solved overnight; whether it’s rehabilitating the environment, introducing safer systems or addressing community needs. Change must be sustainable in an economic sense too – prudence is key to longer term success.

10.What is your greatest achievement to date?
At Gemfields, my major achievement is having built a global sustainability strategy and growing local teams from 1 to over 15 people in just under 3 years, and in that time, overseeing a massive improvement in community relations and projects specifically in Mozambique. The impact we have seen from our efforts has been incredible with many thousands of people benefitting. Visiting and talking with these people never fails to reaffirm why I chose to spend my life in this sector. I am also very proud of the work I have done in the downstream market working with our business partners to help them improve their cutting and polishing factories by carrying out audits – something that had never been done before in the coloured gemstone sector.

11.What motivates you?
What motivates me is transformation, change and innovation. I am passionate about companies that embrace sustainability as a strategic opportunity for change because they see the benefits of being more socially and environmentally responsible. This also means they are transforming how they operate and potentially innovating their products around this which is very exciting. I am motivated also by fixing problems, defending reputation and ensuring that people are doing their jobs properly!

12.What are the biggest challenges for sustainability?
There are huge challenges globally. As the world becomes ever more integrated, a challenge is emerging around how companies will address global constraints relating to water, labour and soil productivity. Fundamentally the major driver is the increase in the world’s population and we don’t have a global plan on how to address this growth in consumption. This is putting the world’s systems under enormous pressure.

13.What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?
Be mindful of what you consume and minimise your footprint whenever you practically can; it doesn’t have to be a comprehensive lifestyle change or, contrary to popular belief, expensive, but being conscious that small changes like reducing your energy use or buying less ‘throw away’ fashion is a good start. A major one is reducing the amount of meat you consume because so much of the world’s resources are used for rearing animals for human consumption.

14.What key advice would you give to someone looking to enter a career in sustainability now?
There are fewer opportunities now than when I started out in 2002, but on the positive side, this is because of a huge increase in interest in the sector. Every company now has a sustainability person, and more people from mainstream corporate roles are transitioning into sustainability. People are attracted to it because it’s about doing good, but that means it’s a hyper-competitive area. Always consider consultancy as a way in – that’s how I started.

15.Can you recommend a life/game-changing book for our readers?
I have been influenced quite heavily by a few business books over the years:
‘The first 90 days’ by Michael Watkins and ‘How to Lead’ by Jo Owen are two really excellent books on leadership.
‘Let my people go surfing’ by Yvon Chouinard is a hugely inspirational story from the man who was instrumental in setting up one of the world’s most sustainable companies, Patagonia.

16.Can you leave us with who would be your Eco Hero?
David Attenborough. He brought wildlife to me through his TV programmes and continues to be a hero, a legend and an inspiration to me.

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