In Conversation With CEO Annie Heaton On Our Achievements And What’s Next For ResponsibleSteel

This month marked one year since CEO Annie Heaton stepped in to lead ResponsibleSteel through a new phase, one of building momentum. Annie discusses what led her to join ResponsibleSteel, how her experience has shaped her vision for ResponsibleSteel, what achievements she has been most proud of over the last year, and what she sees as the next steps for ResponsibleSteel.

You spent almost a decade shaping ArcelorMittal’s sustainability agenda, why did you choose to join ResponsibleSteel?

One word: impact. I am inspired by the sheer scale of contribution the steel industry makes to our modern world, the ubiquitous utility of steel in the infrastructure of today and the technologies of tomorrow. I am even more inspired by the potential for tomorrow’s steel production to impact positively on people and the environment. At ArcelorMittal, I saw this potential at first hand, through a combination of leadership commitment, sound management, and innovative thinking. ResponsibleSteel has the potential to drive impact of a different magnitude.

Our well-respected standard and robust assurance system offer steelmakers a roadmap to improvement and a common language of assessment that their customers, communities, investors and workforce can all get behind. I firmly believe ResponsibleSteel will drive the next generation of steelmakers to truly maximise their contribution to a sustainable society.

What makes ResponsibleSteel unique?  

As the landscape of initiatives gets busier and busier, particularly in relation to climate, it is clear to me that ResponsibleSteel provides a much-needed common, consistent and credible thread between all these efforts, enabling all the work being done to be streamlined and accelerated. Our credibility is so valuable in today’s world of misinformation, false claims and greenwashing. That is why both businesses and not-for-profit organisations choose ResponsibleSteel.

And it’s not just about carbon. Responsible steelmaking goes far beyond climate change mitigation. The safety and well-being of the some six million people working in the industry, the millions more working in the supply chain and living in nearby communities, all need to be ensured. The impacts on biodiversity and our ecosystems of mineral and timber extraction as well as steelmaking need to be greatly improved. If in 30 years’ time, we have removed almost all emissions of greenhouse gases, but haven’t worked hard to support nature and people’s livelihoods, our future will be very bleak.

ResponsibleSteel is the only standard for steel that combines all the complexities of good social and environmental performance in one indicator across the value chain that everyone can look for: certification.

What is your vision for ResponsibleSteel?  

We are on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, and with this one, we have the luxury of being able to plan it. We have a tremendous opportunity to ensure every dollar we invest in new industry avoids unintended consequences for people or the planet. This means adhering to strong sustainability standards. I firmly believe when we look back at this period, we will see how good international sustainability standards such as ResponsibleSteel played a critical role in the transition. The application of good standards will ensure our transition is as focused and streamlined as possible. It will enable suppliers to align with customers, investors and policymakers, and ensure fair global trade and direct finance to where it is most effective. Good standards will catapult us towards society’s goals without discriminating against poorer countries. All these are outcomes I believe ResponsibleSteel will deliver.

So we are at a pivotal moment globally. We can transition our economies within the next 30 years or less if we create the right conditions. Both for steel and in all the industries steel serves. This is an enormous challenge, and it needs to be faced collectively. ResponsibleSteel works as a catalyst, providing steelmakers with the necessary framework to tackle critical climate and sustainability issues. We need to ‘win on carbon’. But we must win on people and the environment too. ResponsibleSteel is the tool to drive that success.

To achieve that, ResponsibleSteel has to be the most trusted global standard for steel. It’s an initiative working with the integrity, credibility and spirit of collaboration we need to maximise steel’s contribution to a sustainable world. When a site becomes certified against the ResponsibleSteel International Standard, people know it’s been through a rigorous process assessing how it manages its impacts on the environment and local communities, how it treats its workforce and how it drives improvements, both in its operations and in its supply chain. And if practices falter, people want to be sure that ResponsibleSteel’s assurance system will oversee and track the corrections needed.

How has your experience in sustainability over the past 30 years influenced your vision for ResponsibleSteel?  

I’ve enjoyed a wonderfully varied career working on everything from child labour to water scarcity, renewable energy to community engagement, finance to healthcare systems, and across many many different sectors. At one stage or another, I have spent time working on almost every aspect principle of the ResponsibleSteel Standard! And over the years I’ve learnt some valuable lessons. Firstly, that change is not inevitable. Nothing changes without vision and commitment. Secondly, that change is driven by the focused actions of stakeholders in pursuit of ambitious goals. With the right tools, we can drive change some may think impossible. Thirdly, that consulting people is a must. The outcomes of any project are enriched if one works with one’s ears open.

ResponsibleSteel must draw on all these elements to deliver on our mission, to drive the socially and environmentally responsible production of steel, globally. The commitment of our members is palpable. They believe in what we are doing, and how we’re doing it. They learn through the process too, both business and civil society members, because their common commitment to our purpose enables a safe space in which to discuss difficult issues. This is how they help us build the tools that are the right ones for the job. That is why steelmakers accept the enormous challenge of preparing for a ResponsibleSteel audit. I want to point out though, that our standard and certification scheme is not the only tool in the box: it’s vital that ResponsibleSteel works with other initiatives as they emerge to enable an ecosystem of tools that work together to deliver our common goals.

This past year has seen significant growth for ResponsibleSteel, what are the moments you have enjoyed the most? What achievements are you most proud of?  

The opportunity to work both with our members and wider initiatives across the world, exchanging ideas and looking for synergies, is what brings me to work every day with passion. It’s been great to see so many new members over the past year – our membership has grown by 20% in the past year and now stands at well over 140 members with a growing body of civil society organisations and 15% of the steel industry in membership. We have 58 certified sites to date across 5 continents covering 107mt of steel production, over 5% of the global industry, in just a few years.

Forum III was certainly one of ResponsibleSteel’s greatest achievements last year with over 200 people coming together in Memphis, and a proud moment for me and the team. Seeing how much leadership and critical thinking our members are demonstrating, across the value chain, across the generations, and across business and civil society, was so invigorating.

In the first part of this year, we established a Finance Working Group. This is a new space we are convening for investors and steelmakers to come together to look at how to remove the blockages to financing for steel decarbonisation. We’ve developed an ambitious work programme to do what ResponsibleSteel does best: facilitate multistakeholder dialogue with a view to developing practical solutions to drive progress.

One more highlight has been our first engagements in Asia. Shiv, our Development & Innovation Director, Ali, our Corporate Affairs Director, and I have been in India, South Korea, Singapore and soon Japan, engaging with shipping, automotive, energy, and finance sectors. These have really helped grow understanding of ResponsibleSteel’s mission in some of the world’s most significant steel making economies.

What comes across from all this is what an amazing team we have in the Secretariat, that has built and continues to build the organisation that we are today. The spirit of collaboration, thoughtful commitment and bold ambition is something I value immensely.

So what’s next for ResponsibleSteel?  

We have achieved a huge amount, but in many ways, we have only just begun. We are seeing applications for membership and core certification growing rapidly. We’re now preparing for the market for certified steel to take off so that sites can distinguish themselves for their progress towards responsible near zero. And the new downstream chain of custody rules I’ve mentioned will be critical in ensuring that claims about certified steel in the market are specific and reliable to ward against greenwashing.

ResponsibleSteel’s standards and certifications are only part of a wider ecosystem. So the work we do with other initiatives that credit ResponsibleSteel as the most trusted global standard is critical to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction as efficiently as possible. Leading examples of this are the collaborations we are working on with SteelZero and the First Movers Coalition to drive the right kind of demand signals for true and responsible decarbonisation.

We are also working on alignment across GHG measurement standards under the UN Steel Breakthrough agenda. Unless embodied emissions are measured using the same rules, the numbers will look very different, so this is critical. That is why we are working with worldsteel and other methodology initiatives to align on these rules so that datasets can be interoperable.

On near zero in particular I see some emerging consensus on the thresholds, and I expect to see this firm up in the months to come as measurement rules align. This will give off-takers and investors some clarity on how to look for assurance that a project’s future steel production will be recognised in the market as near zero, for example through ResponsibleSteel’s progress level 4 certification.

And since ResponsibleSteel certification covers the human and broader environmental considerations of steelmaking, these near zero plants have a very real opportunity to show they are responsible too. This after all is the real answer to the ubiquitous question, ‘What is green steel’?

Yet decarbonisation is not only about nurturing innovative near zero steel projects. It’s a transition, and the ResponsibleSteel Standard is designed specifically for this. We are saying to all steel sites: come on the journey, and use our progress levels as marketable stepping stones towards near zero. This is so important in high-growth countries like India, where new capacity needs to be developed. ResponsibleSteel certification ensures that at the very least, these are built at an emissions intensity that beats the global average (our level 1) and has a roadmap for timely reduction.

These are critical times, and we can all sense that momentum is building. The good work of ResponsibleSteel feels more important and more exciting now than ever.  We have the tools, and I believe that together we can drive the change some may think impossible. The hard work ahead will need collaboration, trust and commitment.

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