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Pushing for sustainability: Iona Neilson on her role in Formula E and “staying ahead of the curve"

Both sea levels and temperatures are rising and the world’s biodiversity is at risk, all because of climate change. In response, motorsport wants to reduce emissions and increase awareness around sustainability. ABB FIA Formula E is in pole position, becoming the first championship to be certified net-zero carbon from inception.

Iona Neilson, a Senior Sustainability Manager at Formula E, wanted to work in the sector from a young age, because of her interest in the planet and how humans interact with it. She took A-levels in geography, geology and environmental studies and went on to study geography at university. The passion was there and the vision was clear, so she started working in a corporate sustainability environment to gain hands-on experience, including undertaking an industrial placement at McDonald’s UK in the Energy and Environment team with a focus on energy, waste and employee behaviour change. Her focus shifted to motorsport once she decided to combine her love for sustainability and travelling and Formula E’s focus on sustainability immediately sparked her interest.

“It was a young motorsport that was still on its journey in the field and it was the only motorsport at that time that had sustainability truly at the core,” she tells Females in Motorsport. “There was a real opportunity to further drive and embed the strategy and vision into the business and operations and influence how this might look in the future.”

Becoming a Sustainability Executive provided her with the chance to work with the Sustainability Manager to ensure that the long-term environmental value was at the core of Formula E’s strategic vision. Key tasks included creating bespoke community engagement plans for races, becoming heavily involved in the documentation and management of the ISO 20121 system and data collection for the Lifecycle assessment.

“That was four short years ago,” she says. “Whilst it is an extremely challenging and fast-paced environment, it is equally exciting and rewarding. I don’t see myself thriving as much anywhere else.”

The long-term value of sustainability needs to be at the core of Formula E’s vision, which is achieved through the overarching sustainability strategy in the company and the specific sustainability targets in different departments.

As a Senior Sustainability Manager, Iona leads on the environmental excellence pillar of Formula E’s sustainability strategy with a focus on monitoring, measuring and reducing the environmental impacts of the championship. One of the main focuses of the role is operational delivery, which involves working with a number of different internal departments on a race by race basis to ensure the event is planned and delivered with sustainability in mind.

“This also includes leading on the carbon footprinting of the championship, which covers our Net Zero Carbon strategy and ensuring we remain a carbon neutral sport and continuing to implement measures which contribute towards Formula E progressing against their Science-based target of a reduction in carbon emissions of 45% collectively by 2030”.

“On top of this, there’s also an environmental compliance element to my role which ensures Formula E are operating in line with all relevant environmental standards/laws and regulations in mind.”

“This includes various certifications and accreditations such as ISO 20121, the international standard for sustainable events, and FIA’s Three-Star Environmental Accreditation,” she says. “We are audited a number of times each season to ensure we remain compliant with the standards and it is my role to continue to improve on our approach of embedding sustainability into our events.”

Being the first motorsport to achieve ISO 20121 for the championship, Formula E has a responsibility to maintain this and they do this through setting objectives, collaborating with internal departments and creating action plans to achieve these objectives.

“As part of the ISO 20121 process, we empower champions per department who are responsible for helping us to deliver the specific objectives and actions relating to their area within Formula E. We provide direction and guidance and in return they help us to make sure that sustainability is fully integrated into their ways of working and environmental impacts are kept to a minimum.”

“Sustainability professionals are often described as change-agents because it is up to them to influence current processes/behaviours within an organisation to achieve sustainable solutions, which requires strong project management skills. It also requires you to have gained trust in your knowledge within the organisation.”

“Another key skill required for sustainability professionals is being able to listen and understand the needs and expectations of others and where sustainability might be able to fit in. Including other internal departments on the sustainability journey within Formula E has ensured full buy-in and collaboration to get to where we are today. We have a good foundational knowledge on sustainability but need organisational level competency in order to work together and apply this properly at departmental level”.

Iona has been part of many exciting projects and developments throughout her career but has also faced many hurdles and has had to be persistent throughout.

“You have to work out new ways of how you can move forward and take risks in the process. We have done things that have and haven’t worked, but we’ve come a long way in the last four years and a key to success is having passion for the cause and not giving up. It's one of those topics where small changes can bring a real positive difference not just to an organisation but even at broader scale.”

“This is exactly what is being seen at a more global scale as we see increasing pressure and scrutiny from wider stakeholders (fans, spectators, investors etc.) to ensure sustainability truly is at the core of what we do. Seeing how much it is growing in importance is a key driver for ensuring we retain our leadership position in this space and stay ahead of the curve, whilst also contributing to frameworks and sharing best practise to help drive sustainable change in the sector.”

Integrated into their sustainability strategy is social progress by nurturing a culture of inclusivity that embraces diversity in all its forms, and this includes increasing the percentage of women involved in the world of motorsports.

“There are already some extremely influential women in the paddock within Formula E such as as Susie Wolff (CEO for Rokit Venturi Racing) and Manuela Gianni (Head of DHL Motorsport Italy). The more exposure we can give to these women the better, because that shows what can be achieved,” she says. “Providing guidance, support and creating opportunities for females to be introduced into motorsport is crucial for them to understand just what is available to them, and FIA Girls On Track does just this. Formula E has had over 1,500 girls participate in Girls on Track events since the pilot in Season 4 and the programme continues to grow.”

Her advice for women that want to work or race in motorsport is to be brave and not be afraid to put themselves out there.

“Take risks, challenge conventional thinking, put yourself out there and don’t be afraid,” she says. “That pays off.”

Iona has no plans to leave Formula E anytime soon, and hopes that she can continue to grow the influence and support the wider sector on their own sustainability journeys.

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