Environmental consulting is a vital part of our modern world, many companies will have an environmental consultant who will address issues such as water pollution, air quality, soil contamination, carbon emissions and waste. These professionals are necessary to help industries to find ways to make their businesses sustainable and limit the environmental affects they have in the long term.
Sophia Olo-Whaanga is an Environmental & Sustainability Advisor at Dempsey Wood Civil, a large civil construction company, in Auckland, New Zealand. Sophia completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Sciences & Psychology and she also has a postgraduate diploma in Environmental science. Sophia is the first grandchild from her mother’s side to graduate from University. She has been working as an environmental consultant for the better part of the last 4 years. Sophia is very passionate about giving back to the community by working with her marae (Makaurau Marae, Ihumātao) and by encouraging rangatahi (younger generations) into science.
1. How would you describe in layman’s terms what you do vs. what people think you do?
I think people have the perception that I’m just an environmentalist, rather than a scientist. When I say I am an environmental scientist they think that I am a tree hugger or just an activist for the environment but in fact it goes beyond that. What I actually do, I work on sustainable management and practices and I look at how human activities impact on the environment. I try and reduce those negative impacts and make sure that we are doing things to ensure there is long term sustainability. At my work place, I help to reduce the waste and segregate waste on job sites, for instance in the construction industry there is a lot of waste that comes out of sites so I try and increase awareness to make sure they are reusing where possible and reducing the amount they send to landfill.
2. How do environmental consultants contribute to the community at large?
I feel as though it is a very holistic and cohesive job because you are not just considering the environment or the client, you are thinking about the long term effects and you are trying to involve the community and stakeholders, so they are very important to bring everything together
3. How do you think environmental consultants will impact sustainability going forward and do you think anything will change post Covid-19?
Environmental consultants are doing a lot of that work at the moment and after Covid-19 they are in the right industry at the right time. They do have a lot of influence already because they have built many relationships and they are also there to be leaned on for that advice. There is already the momentum there for environmental professionals and people within that industry. I think, especially in New Zealand, where the government is focused on conservation as well as the importance of environment and sustainable employment and so on, this is where we are now seeing the government “put the money where their mouth is”. This progress will only just help to drive what environmental consultants have already been doing.
4. What made you choose this sector and field?
I think a lot of it was due to my upbringing, especially being from an indigenous background, the environment is always part of my ancestral linkages, it has always been an important part of the way that I live my life. Further along the track, I had a really good Biology teacher in High School who let me be me and be creative in science which made science fun and was really helpful for someone like me.
5. Would you say that this sector is still largely male dominated or has there been a shift in demographics?
It is still male dominated, like most industries, but with environmental consulting and people that work with sustainability, they are trying to diversify and I think it is probably more rapid than other industries as it is part of the focus. However, there are very few indeginous people in these types of roles.
6. What advice would you give fellow woman contemplating moving into a role that may be more male dominant?
If you don’t apply yourself then how will you ever know? It is not that an industry can be against you, most of it comes from imposter syndrome or self-doubt and really once you get into the field of your choosing that is male dominated, it’s guaranteed that if you work hard and do the best that you can in that role then you’ll do well. I don’t think that it is anything to do with it being male dominated, it is just that there is a stigma and really you should focus on having a good attitude.
7. Who do you look up to in the environmental sustainability world and why?
My kaumātua from my marae, would be who I look up to, on a personal level, and that is because they are the people who have gone before and have tried to pave the path for people like me and encourage us to get higher education and care for our environment. Claire Feeney, author of How To Change The World, is someone I look up to as her ethos is about helping at the individual level and how individuals can make change and if enough people get on the bandwagon then you can make global change. She works with all industries and she makes the environment relevant. Something else I’ve learnt is that if you’re not passionate about something or don’t think it affects you then you’re not going to put energy into it. Mike Joy is another person I look up to, he is a freshwater ecologist and but he is a professor at Victoria University of Wellington. He is really good at communicating science, he has always been quite opposed to intensive dairy farming and has spotlighted the effects of it on our waterways and his work has been very integral to that movement.
8. Where do you see yourself in 5 years and in 10 years?
In 5 years’ time I see myself working for my people, and potentially starting a professional consultancy with an indigenous focus. In 10 years, I’d like to be living on a farm and being self-sustainable.
9. What motivates you?
Giving back to my community that has raised me, giving back to my culture that I identify with, as well as wanting to be a better person every single day.
10. Do you have any tips for the everyday individual wanting to “make a difference” and “be the change”?
Make small change; have reusable cups and utensils, take your own food to work, reduce your energy and water consumption and grow your own food. Another thing I recommend is being more mindful and conscious of how you get to different places, what transport you use, as well the choices you make when it comes to what you eat.
11. What does a typical day in the life of Sophia, look like?
Nothing feels typical in my life at the moment but my day routine will be a coffee as soon as I wake up, then my morning routine of yoga or mediation, then I’ll have breakfast and then I’ll get ready and do some work, after I’ve finished my work I’ll so some work for my marae and then I’ll do some exercise and have dinner and then wind down before bed. With my work I am pretty much 60% in the office and 40% working in the field however during Covid-19 I have been mainly working from home which has been quite good in the sense that it is the time for resetting. When I am in the office, I am reporting on what I have seen in the field and working on strategy plans. When I am in the field, I am doing site inspections, auditing and checking in with the people on site to see if there is anything else, I can do to help them more.
12. What is your favourite thing / part about what you do?
My favourite part is knowing that I have helped to create awareness in someone that has previously never known the reason behind why you recycle and also being able to change someone’s opinion on how to protect the environment. I have seen this on one of my sites where we did a pilot study on carbon emissions and tracking that throughout. I ended up having guys come up to me on site asking about how they are doing this month, are the numbers less than last month, and these people are genuinely interested now and that is quite rewarding because if I can help to change the opinions of all of those people on that job of the environmental and sustainable practices then they will then teach those principles to their circles and so on from there. I find it really rewarding to be that catalyst of change.
Sophia has given an insight into the world of environmental consulting; she has shared some of her motivators, her inspiration as well as some tips for the everyday person wanting to make impactful changes. If you have any questions you can ask her on Instagram @kaitiaki.sophia.
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About the Author
Elizabeth is a qualified Naturopath and Medical Herbalist, as well as a natural living advocate passionate about holistic health, natural living and educating and supporting individuals to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle.
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