Meet edie's 30 Under 30 Class of 2019: Eilidh Johnston, Laing O'Rourke
This series profiles the members of edie's 30 Under 30 - a nomination-based community of 30 hugely talented young sustainability and energy professionals who have already achieved great things or are showing fantastic promise. Next up: Eilidh Johnston, environmental advisor at Laing O'Rourke.
The future of business leadership starts right here. Earlier this year, edie unveiled the inaugural members of its brand new 30 Under 30 initiative – a group of bright and ambitious rising sustainability and energy stars from across the UK.
After being nominated by their colleagues and impressing judges from Global Action Plan and the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS), this cohort of youthful visionaries now benefit from an unrivalled opportunity to connect with one another and co-develop solutions to some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges of our time.
In this weekly series, we will be sharing their stories and successes beyond the group, giving edie readers insight into the minds of those who will be leading the charge in creating the low-carbon, resource-efficient economies of the future.
This week, it's the turn of Eilidh Johnston, environmental advisor at construction and engineering giant Laing O'Rourke.
How I got to where I am now:
“At school, sciences were where I performed best and what I found most interesting, and I also had a real passion for the outdoors. But, at that point, careers in environmental science weren’t spoken about as an option.
“To that end, I initially went to university to study pharmacy. After two years, I managed to convince myself and my family that I wasn’t passionate enough about that to pursue it as a career. I took a year out and worked for charity Global Vision International in the Seychelles, helping to educate the local population on the protection of their natural environment while also mapping and surveying the national marine park, assessing the environmental impact of business on the ecosystem, I knew this was definitely what I wanted to do, and went back to university to study environmental sciences with geography.
“Through my studies, saw that development was one of humanity’s biggest impacts on the environment; nations and businesses are so hungry for it but, a lot of the time, they don’t focus enough on the impact of the construction period. I approached Laing O’Rourke in my second year of university, when they didn’t really have a big environment team. But I persevered and they took a chance on me. I joined as the company’s first environmental intern more than four years ago and, when I graduated, I was offered a graduate position.
“It was great timing, as Laing O’Rourke had just secured the contract with Tideway. Water management was my focus at university, so I was able to jump into the role.”
My biggest career achievement to date has been:
“Tideway initially had a contract requirement for us to source all key materials from companies with BES 6001 certification. That really narrowed the market to a handful of larger companies and we questioned whether the more sustainable thing to do would be to allow smaller companies to be able to compete.
“I reviewed the contract with the client and produced a cost-benefit analysis of BES 6001 and every other major sustainable materials certification to overcome this challenge and widen the market. My analysis also looked at the full life-cycle of the product, from raw materials to fabrication, transport systems and end-of-life. This massively broadened the scope for stakeholders we could engage on this project and meant that we could help some smaller companies work towards certification.
“Working directly with teams, more broadly, has also been a highlight. Our on-site operatives come from all over the world and helping to engage them in our initiatives was hugely rewarding.”
The biggest challenge I have encountered along the way is:
“We are very fortunate that we have a good working relationship with regulators, but, a lot of the time, people’s best wishes can be conflicting. Some stakeholders, for example, may wish for us to take all material from the foreshore and dispose of it – but our ethos is for beneficial reuse.
“Being able to meet everyone’s demands, and to bring them to the table together to understand concerns and requirements to agree going forward, is always going to be difficult – particularly when you’re working on a fast-moving infrastructure project.”
If I had to describe my generation in one word or phrase, I would say:
A successful 2019-20 for me looks like:
“Often, when you set up a project, there are a lot of contractual requirements, which you then find you’re not able to deliver – or that you’re able to deliver far more.
“So I want to spend the next year really driving the carbon agenda at Tideway forward, looking at our performance to date; identifying future opportunities for savings and communicating honestly around embodied carbon. That communication blueprint could hopefully be used across the industry by companies keen to say ‘we know this isn’t a low-carbon project - that’s the nature of the beast – but it will ultimately deliver net benefits’.
“On a personal note, I’d like to increase the work I’m doing to help people get involved in STEM. I’m currently working to encourage women and girls into this field, and would like to narrow that focus to make sure they take that move with the environment in mind.”
In five years’ time, I would like to be:
“Seeing Tideway through to completion. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I absolutely love my job, so it will be a ‘forever’ career achievement to have stayed with this project from before we had a spade in the ground through to commissioning.
“After that, I would quite like to take a sideways step and look at helping industries which aren’t necessarily as sustainability-minded as the built environment. Being able to influence companies that don’t necessarily think they have a role to play to work towards net-zero and the SDGs would be amazing.”
Outside of my career, I enjoy:
“Exercising! It’s so important, I think, to maintaining mental clarity when you have quite a high-pressure job. Taking some time out and getting some endorphins going is always a highlight of my day.
“I also love to travel – mainly for camping and exploring holidays. Being from Scotland, I’ve spent a lot of time hiking and visiting the beautiful, untouched landscapes Scotland has to offer.”
My ‘Mission Possible’ message for business is:
“Invest in your own people. Among your current workforce, there might not be that many people with ‘sustainability’ in their job title – but many probably have a passion for doing things in a way that’s better for people and planet.
“People will be key to solving the world’s biggest problems, so broadening your engagement – both internally and externally – is so important. Explore your ability to offer new career pathways, or to hire from different places. You’ll probably find this brings a completely new outlook to the table.”
My key piece of advice for any young professionals entering my industry today is:
"When you start a new challenge, make sure you take time to integrate yourself in your position and understand all facets of the company. That way, you'll be able to see all the routes you can take to drive progress.
"And, once you have your feet under the desk, don't back down. Don't let anyone try to dismiss, compromise or overpower your ideas or your values.
The full Class of 2019 series can be viewed here.
To stay in the loop for 2020 nominations for the 30 Under 30, email email@example.com.