Ivona Balint-Kowalczyk
Sustainability consultant, Founder - Sustainao
Ivona’s introduction

With a background in sustainability consulting and audit, Ivona supports businesses in their sustainability journey by building an impactful strategy, embedding sustainable practices across operations, and reporting performance to stakeholders.

She is the founder of Sustainao, a Singapore-based company specialized in sustainability consulting. Previously, Ivona worked as a sustainability auditor at KPMG France. She holds an MBA in CSR & Sustainability and a Master’s degree in Environmental Management.

You started your own consulting firm, Sustainao, in 2019. Can you tell us more about it and what is your consulting / methodology approach?

At Sustainao, we see sustainability as a continuous journey. There is a multitude of environmental, social and governance factors to address and a multitude of provisions, initiatives, and frameworks that are in perpetual evolution.

Within this context, corporate sustainability might feel like a complicated and endless maze.

Sustainao helps its clients ease the process and focus on the most impactful aspects to create value in the short, medium and long term.

We aim to guide companies in a continuous improvement process by focusing on:

  1. building an impactful sustainability strategy,
  2. ensuring a successful deployment,
  3. developing sustainability reports,
  4. answering non-financial rating agencies and clients’ sustainability questionnaires, and
  5. conducting gap assessments and mock audits to identify improvement actions for the whole sustainability process (steps1 to 4).

What are the minimal criteria to look into when you want to start a more sustainable strategy?

For me, the ideal criteria to kickstart a sustainability journey is conducting a materiality assessment. Its purpose is to identify the most relevant sustainability /ESG factors regarding the company’s business model, strategy and stakeholders.

This is a solid foundation to build a sustainability strategy that will bring value to your business and your stakeholders.

Without it, you might get lost in the multitude of sustainability issues, focus on certain subjects you have little impact on, and maybe completely miss other aspects that could be more relevant in terms of risks, opportunities and value.

However, the process of a good materiality assessment can be quite long, and many companies don’t want to spend several months benchmarking, conducting workshops, surveys or interviews with their stakeholders. They want something simpler to apply right away.

In this case, the minimal criteria are still applying the materiality principle, but in a simpler manner, for example by benchmarking the relevant ESG topics for their industry.  

Indeed, Risk & Opportunities analysis, Materiality assessment, Scorecards are often a first step taken to build an action plan. What would be the key success factors for doing a materiality assessment?

There are many ways to conduct a materiality assessment. Here are the key steps:

  1. Start with an extensive list of potential material ESG factors, based on industry benchmarking, the UN SDGs and other relevant standards or frameworks such as the GRI Standards.
  2. Conduct an internal workshop with the management team to prioritize the ESG factors based on the significance of impact on the business, as well as the environment, society and the economy.
  3. Ideally, conduct a survey and interviews with your key stakeholders to understand their expectations in terms of sustainability.
With Sustainao, you also provide sustainability reporting services to companies. People are often discouraged by reporting, why is that?

Sustainability reporting takes a lot of time and effort, especially at the beginning when the process is not yet formalized. Reporting without a clear sustainability strategy can easily be perceived as pointless or just a compliance check.  

For sustainability reporting to be successful, companies need to find value in the process and involve all relevant departments.

Once sufficient parties within a company see the value of sustainability, they will also see the need for a robust reporting system to measure the performance, and will allocate sufficient resources to implement it.

It is important to highlight that companies never start from scratch when doing sustainability reporting. First steps are compiling existing data from existing reporting systems within the company, such as HR data from the HRIS.

Sustainability is now a hot topic. How do you see the ecosystem evolving? What are the main challenges still existing for companies to pursue their sustainability journey?

Sustainability has been a hot topic for multinationals for many years already.

Now, it is expanding to organizations of all sizes. The challenge for companies that are just starting their sustainability journey, is to navigate through the multitude of standards, frameworks and guidelines and extract only what’s essential to their scope.

Some people have this false impression that sustainability is new and there is not much yet done. Yet, when they discover everything that is already in place, they feel overwhelmed.  It’s an exciting and fast-paced domain.

Carbon footprint calculation and management is currently a prerequisite. Why is it so? What would be your main advice for companies which start to measure their carbon footprint?

Climate change is the most important issue to handle. We  need the contribution of every company regardless of their size. Because each  company contributes to the increase of CO2 emissions.

Calculating the carbon footprint is the first step. Just to know where  you are, how much you emit. Which allows you then to set targets to cut  emissions. The second component is evaluating your climate change risks.

Could you explain why sustainability audit is important for businesses?

Depending on the type of audit (assurance, certification, internal, external, etc.), the purpose and the benefits will be different.

My experience is in sustainability assurance, which is focused on verifying that sustainability disclosures are compliant against a regulation or framework and that data is accurate.

Sustainability assurance an important step in a company’s sustainability journey, as it improves its internal processes and controls, and strengthens credibility and awareness for both external and internal stakeholders.

What I found interesting was to see how sustainability strategies developed at headquarters levels are implemented at the subsidiary level. You can see the potential misunderstandings, the different local expectations and pressure from stakeholders, etc.

Especially in this case, audit is a wonderful tool to improve the sustainability reporting and facilitate the implementation of a sustainability strategy.

What are you most proud of?

Starting my consulting business in Singapore was challenging and fascinating.

Three years later, I am proud of working with customers who see the value of sustainability. I don’t spend my time trying to convince the management team why sustainability is important, they already know. Therefore, we are directly focused on action.

It is inspiring working with such companies and rewarding to see the progress overtime.

What would be your top 3 pieces of advice to The Matcha Initiative (TMI) users?
  • Knowledge is power. Understanding the whole picture, what matters the most for your business and your stakeholders will make your sustainability journey more efficient and relevant and it will help you better convince others.
  • You need support. Sustainability is meant to be transversal in a company. Try to bring together all departments, like obviously the general management, the human resources management, HSE management (if applicable), but also don’t forget about communication and PR, legal, production, purchasing, sales, marketing and R&D.
  • Measure your performance and set targets. Implement KPIs and set targets for your material issues, and chose adequate tools and methodology from the beginning of the reporting process to collect and analyze the data.

How could you help The Matcha Initiative (TMI) users?

TMI users who are kickstarting their sustainability journey, wanting to set up an impactful sustainability strategy or having difficulties reporting performance, can reach to me and I would be happy to share my knowledge and experience.

Ivona kindly accepts to answer your questions.
If you need additional insights, you can send her a message.