When Rob Ellsworth started as a sustainability and energy intern for Schnitzer Steel’s Pick-n-Pull subsidiary, nothing was guaranteed. But through hard work and dedication, he turned that internship into a career. Now the company’s Corporate Sustainability Program Manager, Ellsworth spoke with Scrap News about his decade-long career at Schnitzer, and how he helped build the company’s sustainability program from the ground up.

What is sustainability, and what does it mean to Schnitzer Steel?

Schnitzer has been around for over a century. During its entire existence, and long before the concept was intentionally applied to business strategy, sustainability has been a core value of the company. Sustainability is about longevity. It’s about understanding your environmental impact, along with your societal and community impact. It’s also about driving the economic value for your shareholders and your broader stakeholder base. These objectives have existed throughout Schnitzer’s history.

How did the sustainability program start at Schnitzer Steel, and what was your initial role with the program? How did that role culminate into you becoming the Corporate Sustainability Program Manager?

I was a few months out of college in 2009, which for history’s purpose is known as one of the worst times for job-seeking recent graduates. I spent almost eight months working part-time jobs and looking for internships. Eventually, I stumbled upon a sustainability and energy internship for one of Schnitzer’s subsidiaries, Pick-n-Pull. At the time, our executive team had directed Pick-n-Pull to build a sustainability program specific to that business, and I was hired to support the development of that program from the ground up.

Over the next two years, the program gained significant traction, completing energy efficiency projects at individual Pick-n-Pull stores at such great success that in 2012, the executive team at Schnitzer decided to launch similar programs across the entire business.

Next, I joined the Environmental Regulatory Compliance Department for Pick-n-Pull, performing some environmental regulatory compliance work while leading sustainability projects. In 2012, I took on a corporate role, managing sustainability at the enterprise level, and that’s where I would say the program really took off. We developed a public narrative about the “Sustainability of Schnitzer.” first from a “30,000-foot view,” and over the years, weaving “Sustainability at Schnitzer” into the fabric of both our local operations and strategic business goals.

What is your annual sustainability report comprised of, and how long does it take to put together?

The development of our annual report is an ongoing process that materializes over the course of an entire calendar year. Though, typically we start strategizing near year-end, introducing report themes and ideas about three months into the fiscal year, and completing content and design development within the final quarter of the fiscal year. Gathering the data and deciding how we’re going to tell the story of the business is on-going and continuous. Through the report, we provide highlights from the previous 12-month period, report on progress toward strategic goals, and offer insight into where the company’s headed in the future.

When people ask me what I do for the company, I’ve described it as, “Marrying environmental and social performance with operational and financial data.” Essentially, I’m analyzing and packaging information on environmental and social issues relevant to our business and our stakeholders (e.g. communities, customers, employees, investors, and suppliers), and drawing connections to the more traditional operational and financial information.  As a publicly traded company, we have obligations to report financial information to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The sustainability report is a voluntary effort that offers a window into the environmental and social issues of value to our stakeholders that our financial filings don’t explicitly cover. By nature of our industry, the report has a significant focus on our environmental impact, considering our emissions, energy use, water use, etc. The report also details the value that our business brings to local communities and to the broader economy, from local, state, national, and international perspectives.

Other aspects of the report include societal impact – how we support our own employees as well as the more than 100 communities we serve throughout the U.S., including Puerto Rico, and western Canada. We provide insight into the diversity of our workforce, the culture of our workplaces, and the priority we place on making Schnitzer an inclusive, equitable, healthy, and safe place to work.

Lastly, our sustainability report offers a platform for open dialogue with our stakeholders. When I present the report internally, I tell people this isn’t my document, and it’s not Schnitzer’s document. It’s a document that’s representative of every single employee in the entire company and represents all our valued stakeholders.

How unique was last year’s report in comparison to other years as a result of COVID?

The recycling industry was deemed an essential business and a part of critical infrastructure, so last year we elevated a narrative around our essential workforce. We were fortunate to continue our operations, largely uninterrupted, while keeping our employees safe and healthy to serve our customers and suppliers. The theme of last year’s report illustrated our response to the pandemic, which was a reflection of Schnitzer employees’ resourcefulness, responsibility and resiliency during challenging times. This report provided a unique opportunity to showcase appreciation for our frontline, essential workers.

For companies that aren’t as focused on sustainability as Schnitzer, why should they make it a priority?

Over the years, I’ve heard feedback that “recycling is inherently sustainable, and therefore a focus on it is just not necessary”. It’s an interesting, though largely outdated, thought that organizations that offer an environmental benefit don’t need to formalize sustainability efforts. What we know now, is that sustainability is about more than an environmental mission; it’s about measuring progress across the triple bottom line and setting goals to push business toward a model that continually benefits our people, planet, and profit.

A focus on sustainability can have direct and positive financial implications for a company. It provides a platform to align business priorities with the priorities of a workforce, the priorities of a supply chain, and the priorities of affected community members. Through that alignment, companies prepare for and achieve long-term success– and generating greater productivity and clarity of purpose. For Schnitzer, sustainability is more than an initiative or a program, it’s a core value.

Photos courtesy of Ellsworth.