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ESG in Genomics: Where to start? – Interview with Sharon Vidal, Senior Director and Global Lead for Corporate Social Responsibility at Illumina

Recently, I wrote a blog about the importance of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) and why the genomics industry should be taking it more seriously than they are currently doing so. Following this, I was delighted when Sharon Vidal (Senior Director and Global Lead for Corporate Social Responsibility at Illumina) reached out to me. In this exclusive interview, she advises on how genomics companies can follow ESG practices and make their business more sustainable.

Immy: How did you start your career driving sustainability in genomics?

Sharon: My journey, like many career paths for people today, was not linear. My degree was in Biology with an emphasis on ecology, so I have always had a passion for the environment. When I started my career, there was no Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or proactive sustainability. Instead, companies were heavily focussed on regulatory compliance and abiding by laws. Eventually, the CSR industry grew, and I was drawn to the connections of sustainability, people and social impact.

Most of my experience has been within the biotechnology industry. I have spent the last twenty years helping life science companies with sustainability, health, safety and social impact programming. I joined Illumina about five and a half years ago and at the time there wasn’t a formal CSR or ESG program. I was tasked with starting a functional approach to CSR and leveraged what was already in place within the company. Combining my biology background and experience in CSR with the amazing progress that is being made in genomics today was, for me, the perfect fit for my career in sustainable business.

Sharon Vidal, Senior Director and Global Lead for Corporate Social Responsibility at Illumina

Immy: Why is it important for genomics companies to focus on ESG right now?

Sharon: It’s important for all companies to focus on ESG right now and embed it into how they do business moving forward. Specifically for companies in genomics, there is a unique intersection of biology and technology that is bringing solutions to some of the world’s most challenging issues facing us today. Connecting the science to both the human and environmental health element will be critical for their success. I believe genomics will transform economic, social and environmental systems.  Personalised health care with next generation sequencing, applying principles of agrigenomics to more cost effective and resilience crops, and enabling equitable access to genomics will shape the future. 

As we speak, genomics is being used for driving sustainability all over the globe. For example, researchers are using genomics to make decisions about conservation biology and the future of sustainable food supply. They are also using genomics to better understand what happened in previous climate changes and utilising that information to help us be more resilient in the future. Overall, genomics provides a huge opportunity to help the planet and human health.

Immy: How would you recommend smaller genomics companies start their ESG journey?

Sharon: There are a few recommendations I would make. Focus efforts on the most material ESG topics to your business and leverage your employees. Companies always have passionate ambassadors internally that can help get things started. Start sharing information about your ESG program – no matter where you are on the journey, transparency is celebrated. Connect with other organisations to tackle global issues of equity and sustainability. They cannot be solved by any one company, or even any one government.  We will need to all work together to create measurable impact.

In most cases, companies have a hard time getting started on their sustainability journeys because it’s overwhelming thinking about all the things that they need to tackle. The way that we approached it was to leverage what was already in existence and to share what we already had in place. Most companies have some kind of employee development program or diversity and inclusion initiatives. Or perhaps, the business just has employees that are passionate about these topics. Building upon that fundamental base will help you get started.

Every company will need a tailored CSR or ESG program. Businesses in the genomics field will have some elements that differ to a company that is consumer facing, or in a different industry. Genomics companies should not only focus on how they do business, but also how their technology or research can be applied to help tackle climate change or drive sustainability practices. Every business needs to identify what matters most to their stakeholders and then work on how they can uniquely impact that.

Immy: How can smaller genomics companies make a positive impact on communities?

Sharon: The first step is linking back to materiality. Once a company identifies what is most material for them, their community engagement strategy can be linked to their CSR efforts. Making a positive impact on communities is one element most companies will have in common when creating their CSR strategy, but how they achieve it and the topics they focus on might be unique to their industry or to where they do business. This is an area where great power can come from, and leveraging employees to find out what values are most important to them can be great for prioritising how to connect with the community and creating a volunteer base. At Illumina, our employees share that they feel more connected to our mission when they get an opportunity to give back to the community.

Immy: How can smaller genomics companies make a positive impact on the environment?

Sharon: To avoid feeling overwhelmed, most companies find it is easier to start with what they have control over first. Begin by adding onto what is already being done and ensure that there is awareness surrounding the opportunities to incorporate ESG practices. Focus on your facilities and products first. In the future, you can expand to include your supply chain or entire value chain. On a tactical level, companies can conduct energy, water and waste audits to identify a pipeline of projects to work on. For example, a team could be developed to help improve the recycling signage for waste diversion. Conducting internal audits can also be a great way to engage employees. At Illumina, we used our green team energy ambassador volunteers to visit the site at night and check if the sensors and lights were optimised. Often, energy projects including renewable energy will have direct cost savings and can be justified with a strong return on investment. 

Companies will be surprised when they look within their own walls and see what opportunities there are to make their business more sustainable. This could include things like recruiting the talent that is required to drive sustainability initiatives or looking at internal programs on energy optimisation, waste disposal and water efficiency. Of course, different programs will be relevant to different companies. Initiatives like this will likely lead to some sort of cost savings too. Beyond energy efficiency, there is now a wealth of data to support that having a strong ESG program is good for business.

It’s important to remember that no single company will be able to tackle every one of these issues, no matter how big they are. It’s the same with governments. No government alone will be able to make a big enough impact. Therefore, it’s essential that smaller companies connect with other organisations or join collaborations to magnify their impact.

Immy: How can genomics companies engage all stakeholders with ESG practices?

Sharon: It’s different for each stakeholder. Internally, it’s important to share a roadmap of where the company is heading, whether this be related to the environmental or social side. This is so that the employees feel like they are part of the journey. For top talent joining the company, sharing stories that demonstrate you are a good corporate citizen and aligned to their values is key. Regarding investors, showing that ESG has been incorporated into the business adds long-term value for those shareholders because it shows that the company has become more resilient.

Essentially, messages about ESG need to be tailored so that different stakeholders are given the information that they need. But transparency is always crucial. This does not change depending on the stakeholder.

Immy: What tips would you give for writing an ESG report?

Sharon: Reporting on ESG practices can be challenging with so many different reporting frameworks available. Right now, a lot of the sustainability rankings are based on scores that companies share externally. Therefore, the first step for a company with no previous ESG reports is just to share what programs are currently in place. The next step would be to conduct a materiality assessment. This will inform a company what is most important to their stakeholders and where the company can make the biggest impact. It will also allow the company to focus their efforts and prioritise key areas.

Next, it may be useful to look at some frameworks that line up with the business. This will help to map out what the company should be sharing and what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are most important to report on. Linking to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that matter most to the company may be a good place to start. There are also resources more specific to the industry available, like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Standards, which probably already have the key performance indicators that the company is using.

Once a slightly more extensive ESG program has been put in place, it is essential to keep all stakeholders updated, whether this be once a year via a formal report or through less structured stories. Nevertheless, it is crucial to start sharing wherever you are as the program evolves. There is no ‘done’ in this space – it’s more of a continuous improvement. So, wherever a company is on their ESG journey, it is crucial to share where they are and be transparent on their progress, wherever that may be.

Immy: What can other genomics companies learn from Illumina’s ESG practices?

Sharon: As a purpose driven company, our mission ‘Unlocking the Power of the Genome to Improve Human Health’ guides everything we do. This spans from our business approach, to how we conduct our CSR program and apply our ESG themes. We are pretty early in our own maturity regarding ESG, but we see it as a way to deepen our impact on human health and serve as champions for patients, communities and our planet. In fact, we have only published two CSR reports and so I would say that no matter where other genomics companies are, it’s okay to start now and to tackle one topic at a time. They are actually probably further along than they think.

Our philanthropy and giving strategy are lined up with our own CSR focus areas, one of which is environmental sustainability. An example of one of our recent grant recipients is the Turtle Survival Alliance. Illumina provided sequencers to support reintroducing turtles to the wild after being confiscated from unknown locations through illegal trade. Groups like the Turtle Survival Alliance are using genomics to protect future viability of endangered species. 

Genomics is such an important piece of ESG that can sometimes be overlooked. It is also a really important part of the science behind understanding the natural world that we live in and it can positively contribute to the solutions we need for a more sustainable and healthy future. So, with that in mind, I would encourage all companies in the industry to follow in any way that they can.

Since speaking to Sharon and finding out about Illumina’s ESG portfolio, I feel encouraged that the genomics industry shows promise regarding sustainability. It’s reassuring to know that companies, in an industry so focussed on human health, are pioneering and taking an interest in the future of our planet too. But there is still a long way to go yet. I hope that this interview provides genomics companies with a helping hand in starting their ESG journey.

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Environment / Genomics / Illumina