Janet Salem has over 13 years of experience working in circular economy and sustainability at the United Nations. She has been selected by the ASCI2021 Advisory Board to deliver the keynote address at the ASCI annual conference in February 2021, as part of the Continuous Professional Development Program. Below is an edited Q&A between Salem and ASCI.
ASCI: How does a university graduate from New South Wales end up working with the United Nations?
Janet Salem: I’m surprised myself. It was quite unintentional but I studied an environmental engineering degree at the University of New South Wales and I took an interest in environmental accounting relevant for supply chains. This involved looking at techniques like life cycle assessment which look at the environmental impacts behind a product, including not only the company that directly making the products but the company that makes the components of the packaging and transports and behind that, making the materials and then further back, the one extracting raw materials from the environment.
Then, as part of the degree, I completed an internship with the UN global program to promote these techniques. While doing that internship I worked on a proposal on a science policy interface on the sustainable use of natural resources.
A couple of years down the track that proposal was successful and so I went back to work on that in the EU and environment programme in Paris and stayed there working on synthesizing what science has to say about sustainable resource management and how we have to bridge the gap between scientists and what policy makers are doing towards sustainability.
The opportunity came up around eight years ago to apply some of this knowledge in policy support to governments in the Asia-Pacific region and so I have spent the last eight years looking at how we can support individual governments and regional processes to develop security and sustainable resource management.
Very recently I joined a new program looking at the circular economy. The focus is on plastics in Southeast Asia and am very excited about this new role and looking at how technologies can help monitor plastics and how solutions can prevent plastic waste from reaching our oceans in the first place.
ASCI: Can you briefly explain the premise behind the Decade of Action and what are the main sustainability goals?
Janet Salem: The UN sustainable development goals were adopted in 2015 and they’re considered a transformative agenda for the world to shift towards a sustainable future. The reason that they’re so transformative is that they really apply to all countries equally.
We used to have the Millennium development goals which are very focused on poverty eradication. That’s evolved and the sustainable development goals under the Decade of Action, or the Global Goals so they are called, apply to all countries. It’s said that now every country is a developing country because they also include environmental sustainability, clean industries, the state of the cities, climate action, protecting nature, and life below water. It’s looking at gender and it’s looking at health so you really have this cross-cutting agenda that all countries now need to work on in order to develop the kind of future that I think everyone would want to live in.
ASCI: As the first keynote of ASCI2021, what can delegates expect to hear from your address?
Janet Salem: My address will cover concrete examples that show supply chain approaches that can support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 different goals but you can’t address one at a time so I’ll be getting case studies from the private sector and demonstrating how they cross over a few different goals.
There is a limit to what governments can do to deliver these goals. Actually, all the production-consumption activities are with the private sector and I think that companies that take a supply chain approach have the most potential and the most responsibility to support the sustainable development goals because they can leverage that entire supply chain and one company can actually mobilise a number of companies to get on the same page.
These cases will also bring in that circular economy approach because it’s it is an environmental framework that has to have a supply chain approach. We’re looking at how do we move from that linear take/make/deliver/waste economy approach to a circular economy approach.
With a circular economy approach you really need to break down those silos and work together. A product that can be re-used and set at a higher value and spun off into a different sector is amazing but makes the supply chain quite long and complex. I’ll address the kinds of discussions that need to be going on between different members of a supply chain in order to reduce the amount of waste that’s generated.
ASCIL What are you most looking forward to hearing at the conference?
Janet Salem: I’m particularly interested to see how industry partners with really complex supply chains are adapting to disruptions in supply chain availability and also how they’re looking at sustainability. Companies on the program like Food Buy, Kimberly-Clark or Metcash who are dealing with a lot of packaging materials and now they’re matching requirements and expectations as packaging becomes more sustainable. Also looking down the supply chain at the ban on exports of plastic waste to other countries and whether these companies have developed domestic solutions for plastic packaging waste.
I’m also quite interested in hearing from the Navy Centre for Innovation because it’s really great to see multiple types of stakeholders collaborating towards a common purpose of innovation and sustainability.
Lastly, I’m keen to see the commended, highly commended and winner of the Sustainability Award at the Awards Dinner on the evening of the first day. I think there is a lot of exciting work on sustainability in Australia that isn’t really well known outside of Australia. Working for the UN in Asia-Pacific, we always looking for good examples of what we can share globally.
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