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Q&A with Tara Norton

Norton joined the electronics giant Navico earlier this year as its first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer.
Tara Norton

Tara Norton

When news broke that Navico had hired a chief sustainability officer, we were curious to learn who Tara Norton is, how one becomes an international expert in supply-chain sustainability, and what a CSO might do at the world’s largest marine electronics company.

Navico Group owns Simrad, Lowrance, B&G and C-MAP, and has 2,500 employees based mainly in Spain, the United States, Mexico, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. CEO Knut Frostad — a former round-the-world sailracer and CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race — has made clear that Navico is dedicated to environmental responsibility and understands the mutual interest the marine industry and consumers share in protecting the environment.

“Navico is poised to be a leader in this ongoing paradigm shift as our industry moves toward more sustainable practices,” Frostad said after hiring Norton.

Norton joined Navico from French multinational Engie Impact, where she worked with its corporate and government clients to accelerate their energy transition to cleaner energies. Still living in France, she was three weeks into her new role when we spoke but will soon to move to company headquarters in Alicante, Spain.

“We must also be able to distill complex issues into simple, engaging language,” 
Norton says of sustainability, which this graphic defining Navico’s packaging illustrates. 

“We must also be able to distill complex issues into simple, engaging language,” Norton says of sustainability, which this graphic defining Navico’s packaging illustrates. 

You grew up in Wayland, Mass. What led to your global focus on supply chains and sustainability?

I went to Northwestern University when there was no such thing as sustainability as a field. But I had the opportunity to go to France, which totally changed my life — the different cultures and languages really spoke to me. After graduating, I joined the Peace Corps and lived in Ukraine in a town near the Black Sea that had been the shipbuilding capital of the Soviet Union. I worked in a secondary school and got integrated into the local community, and I got hooked on the connection between all of these things.

I moved from there to Los Angeles, where my boyfriend — now husband — was working in film and commercials. In L.A., I worked for the World Trade Centers Association, a not-for-profit dedicated to facilitating world trade. I learned a lot about trade working with inbound delegations looking for business partners, and realized I was interested in the social and environmental impacts of business, and the relationships in the multilayers of our complex supply chains. That led me to London Business School, where I joined a group called Net Impact: students interested in corporate social responsibility. And through that, I discovered sustainability. Since then, I’ve worked in sustainability across a number of industries.

What led you to Navico?

When I saw the job description, I said, “I want this job.” It’s such a fascinating sector. I didn’t come from [marine] but have worked with consumer electronics on sustainability questions, and with other transport- related industries. I ran an initiative called Railsponsible, which is about sustainable procurement for rail — not only rail operators, but train manufacturers, brakes, everything else that goes into trains. I’ve also worked on projects with shipping and ship breaking.

I’m not a boater, sailor or angler, but I have always loved the ocean and lakes. I grew up going to Cape Cod, Mass., every summer, and I’ve been on boats a lot. I love the sea, and the ability to get closer to that was super exciting.

The other thing was, honestly, the CEO’s vision for this as a very important part of the company, his passion for it and his experience as a sailor. It was clear from the moment I interviewed, they were serious about wanting to take the sustainability activities they’ve done and see how far we could go.

I like where you can start from scratch and build something. If you look at other sectors, there’s a well-defined view of what the big sustainability challenges are and how they should be working on them. But there isn’t that yet in the marine sector, so this is a chance to build off what’s already being done and drive the sector forward.

4_sustainable-packaging-_47112

What is Navico’s impact on the environment now, and what is your brief as chief sustainability officer?

This is week three, and my first job is to work that out. What is in scope for us? There are obvious things. We make electronic equipment. How are those materials sourced and transported, and what can we do to limit the environmental impact of that and to make sure that the people at all levels of the supply chain are treated appropriately?

Then, how are those products used by customers? That’s where the software and hardware are exciting because you start thinking about helping customers use their boats more efficiently. Then, what happens at the end of the lives of the products? And finally, we have a role to play in the ocean and freshwater waterways.

How do we leave the world better than we found it? That’s the whole idea of sustainability — how do we meet our needs today, including for recreation and fun and enjoying the outdoors, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet those needs.

Navico made a big effort in the last year to shift to sustainable packaging and plans to look into sourcing and recyclability of electronics, as well. 

Navico made a big effort in the last year to shift to sustainable packaging and plans to look into sourcing and recyclability of electronics, as well. 

What are some of the metrics chief sustainability officers use?

We’re going to do a measurement of our own environmental footprint. What’s our use of emissions and impact on water? To do that, you have to draw boundaries. Are you just looking at your company? Are you looking at your upstream supply chain? Are you looking at your customers and consumers and how they’re using the products?

Next, you do the measurement. You can look at material impacts and quantify them in tons of CO2, tons of waste, etc., and then you can establish a baseline and come up with ways to reduce that impact over time.

Another thing to measure is social impact, which can be trickier. It starts with our own employees and how satisfied and engaged they are, how much they participate in sustainability-type activities. You can go broader than that around engaging consumers, and there are different metrics you can choose, maybe about bringing more people into the sports or improving quality of life in some areas.

Finally, there is our overall reputation on this issue. So we’re going to be looking at all these things and figure out what makes the most sense for Navico.

Have you been given a budget yet for your department?

First of all, it’s not going to be a big department. From my experience, the way sustainability works is when it is integrated into what the business is doing. Basically, we work out our priorities: It’s got a name in sustainability — materiality — and any company that has a sustainability report has a materiality map that says these are the issues we care about and why we’ve chosen to focus on them.

Norton says she is not a boater but loves standup paddleboarding and being on the water. 

Norton says she is not a boater but loves standup paddleboarding and being on the water. 

Does materiality define your first six months on the job?

Yes. After that, we come up with the metrics and a road map to get us there. And the road map has to be integrated throughout. R&D and product development has to be on board. Sourcing and procurement also needs to think about how we’re going to do this. And marketing has to look at which partnerships reflect our values and help advance what we’re trying to do.

People and H.R. functions will look at how we help people within our company engage with these topics and see where there are gaps. For example, how do we provide support for local initiatives when people want to do things like beach cleanups or work with local organizations?

Some of it’s already being done. It’s not like I walked in and everybody was doing nothing before I arrived. But you want to build a network within the business. You have a road map and dashboard to steer the ship, and sometimes the network is formal, with people who are responsible for certain aspects, and sometimes it’s more organic, when someone is really passionate about something in a local office and they want to drive it. You want to provide opportunities for both. I think of this as building a network within the company; sustainability is a support function to help Navico be a better business.

What has Navico already done well in sustainability, and where is there room to make rapid progress?

On the product side, we did a big effort last year moving to sustainable packaging. On the waterways side, we’ve done sponsorships and partnerships with organizations doing expeditions or scientific projects. Building off of packaging, we’re already thinking about other aspects of that, like using paper materials in other aspects of our business. Then there’s the products themselves and thinking about sustainable materials. We’ve already started down that path. The R&D and product teams are engaged in trying to go further in that.

Then, what can we do with this technology and the capabilities we have internally? We have people making great software and products, and we already have a C-MAP cloud-software product for environmental professionals called BioBase that can monitor vegetation densities. Now, how can we get more data and help people make data-driven decisions?

Finally, it’s about leadership and partnership. We’re not shy about making a statement and saying we’re serious about this and we want to work with others. We already have some partners, like SailGP, and we’ve sponsored the Plastic Odyssey, looking at ocean plastic.

Based on your experience in supply-chain sustainability, from what other industries might you draw best practices?

Consumer electronics would be one of the first to mention. They have an organization called the Responsible Business Alliance that worked out what the challenges were in global electronics supply chains. Also, for the recyclability of the product, again, consumer electronics is a good place to look. Not that they have all the answers, but they are really addressing the issue head-on.

The commercial marine sector is another example. Big shipping has done a lot on measuring carbon footprint, led by companies like Maersk. How do you measure the carbon footprint of ocean freight, and what do you do about reducing it, thinking about fuel consumption especially?

A third one drawing from my experience is luxury. Luxury brands have heritage similar to the Navico brands, and they offer an experience to their consumers that spans generations, so there’s a lot to draw inspiration from. The luxury sector has embraced sustainability in many ways. They have done a lot with raw materials and also have thought about how to have digital conversations with their consumers, and then also about how to have systems that produce less waste and reuse materials where possible, and how you get suppliers to use less energy and produce less waste. They have been pushing the envelope, and there’s some interesting innovation there.

Can you give us an example?

One example is the rise of resale sites in fashion to buy secondhand luxury items or to rent a handbag. How should we think about products at the end of their lives, or at the end of our use for them?

In consumer electronics, there’s been a lot of development in the reuse of minerals and metals because there are challenges with disposal, and they’re becoming harder to get. There have been advances in companies that take apart complex electronics products and pull out and resell the precious metals in there. There’s a long way to go, but there are interesting sustainable innovations out there for us to draw upon.

When my printer dies, I can take it back to Staples. I don’t know of any marine product that has a Staples I can take it to.

I don’t want to say it’s an opportunity in, because I don’t know — but that, for me, is a huge question. Those models are all around us, as you said, and some of it’s driven by regulation. It’s the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive regulation in Europe that says as an electronics retailer, you have to take back electronics and dispose of them appropriately. But some of it is driven by getting a customer back in your store. You see that with phones, where if you come back with the old one, you get $50 off the new one.

And those phones are sometimes getting refurbished and sold in other countries where people will happily take secondhand phones. In other places, they are being dismantled, and that’s where they’re really trying to work out how to reuse those materials. The reality is at some point we’re going to run out of virgin materials.

Looking closely at sources of key materials in electronics is part of the CSO’s role.

Looking closely at sources of key materials in electronics is part of the CSO’s role.

When Navico announced your appointment, it said you will create vertically integrated policies across the company. What does that mean?

Sustainability policies often involve more than just your company. You have to look at the impact of your supply chain, for example.

Let’s talk about conflict minerals. There is a risk in that some key minerals that go into electronics products — take tungsten, tantalum, tin and gold — can be associated with regions where rebels will be extracting the minerals by putting local miners under duress and using the profits to fund their conflicts. It’s a challenge because these are minerals that go into a lot of our products, so making sure you’re dealing with suppliers and smelters who don’t have a source coming from a conflict zone is an important topic. Most mainstream consumer electronics companies have these policies on a public site or portal.

When you write the plan after your first six months, will it end up in some public form?

Yes. The dorky sustainability word I mentioned, materiality, is a map of what the issues are that are material to us as company, and also what customers, investors, NGOs and the wider world think we should be thinking about. In other words, if you’re going to be a consumer electronics company, you can’t have your whole sustainability focus be about the fact you’re going to make sure the food in your canteen comes from responsible sources; it has to match what your business is. And yes, we will be public about the issues important to us and what we’re doing about it. And we’ll be inviting others to do the same.

You have support of CEO Knut Frostad, who previously engaged the Volvo Ocean Race in sustainability. How important was that to you, and how far has he promised to back you on proposals that aren’t necessarily bottom-line neutral?

That was a huge reason I wanted the job. In my experience, leadership engagement is the No. 1 success factor in integrating successfully. Knut’s dedication to it is very clear, and he’s backed by our board, which is equally important. It’s not just the CEO but also the owners who are financing decisions at that level that really matters.

My view is that sustainability should be a value-driver. Obviously there are costs associated with putting in place policies and making sure they’re followed, and in certain cases you’re going to have to make decisions where the sustainable material might cost more than the unsustainable one, but there’s also value that comes from it. Employee engagement and retention is much higher in companies that are dedicated to sustainability.

And there are other ways it aligns. In my previous work with sustainable supply chains, we would show up and ask, “OK, let’s look at your supply chain,” and often companies didn’t know a lot about their supply chains. Well, there are efficiencies to be found there. There’s a lot of alignment between sustainability objectives and efficiency objectives when you’re talking about reducing carbon footprint, such as reducing air freight and use of fuel.

I’ll tell you more about the results when I’m further along in the job, but sustainability is not always more expensive. I don’t want to overstate the case either, but there are cost savings and value to be derived.

What kind of sustainability ripple effect do you hope to create among suppliers and customers?

The first step is driving awareness in our sector. That’s superexciting. There are plenty of people in this sector who think that issues I would classify under the umbrella of sustainability are important. For example, looking at Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and all he’s done for conservation, there’s a lot of awareness about the importance of these issues. I hope we’ll see more companies being bolder about saying they are dedicated to sustainability, and what it means to them and the issues they’re going to work on.

I’d hope for more partnerships and working together. We can do what we can do as a company, but if we want to fix a waterway, no company can do that alone. And there are different ways of doing it. There’s engaging with other companies to play our respective roles, government, conservation organizations, stakeholders, and getting the people using the products — our customers — involved.

We’ll measure if the things we do are leading to a cleaner, better planet. What those metrics look like, we have some work to do to understand that better.

What leadership skills are most valuable in building momentum for sustainability initiatives?

Fundamentally, it’s values. It’s talking to people and listening — that’s the first thing. One of the questions I’ve been hearing is, What if what we say doesn’t mean something to our customers? Well, we’re not going to do that. We have to listen to what they’re saying. We need to have a dialogue. Sustainability is not a top-down exercise. It’s about what people care about. What is it that we can really do? And if you listen, you find good surprises as well as challenges.

So while it’s not a top-down exercise, our CEO has made a point that we are really ambitious about this at Navico on the whole, and the exciting journeys we will be taking together as a company and with others to help protect our rivers, our lakes and our oceans.

Another skill is cross-cultural awareness, and I mean that in all ways. There are points of view across nationalities, and there’s city vs. rural perspectives. In the U.S., I grew up in Massachusetts, and my family is now in Arizona — these states might as well be two different countries. Having the ability to communicate across different cultures, adjust and listen and talk at different levels, is superimportant.

And then there’s making decisions. One of the places people can get caught up in sustainability is that you may have special interest groups come and attack you for a particular issue of importance to them that maybe you weren’t even thinking about. Being able to hold to your plan and explain your priorities is important. That’s why you do the materiality exercise I mentioned earlier and say, These are the things we’re working on first. Obviously, you have to have some flexibility, too, because what’s important can change quite quickly.

We must also be able to distill these complex issues into simple, engaging language. There’s sustainability at the level of a Davos kind of group where leaders of countries and companies talk about issues at a high level. But at the end of the day, you’re talking about treating people well, not polluting, taking care of our environment — things that everyone can understand, that everyone cares about. Communication is really important.

The final leadership tool is incentives. Think about what the underlying interests and incentives at play are, and be able to address them.

What were your first and best memories on a boat?

My first memory was on Cape Cod, North Falmouth, when a family friend took us on their sailboat. It was simple, a day trip. We played gin rummy, and at some point we swam. My best memory was before my husband and I had kids; we did a sailing trip in the Greek Islands with some other couples.

People discovered new things during this time, and it seems like fishing and boating and sailing were some of them. I discovered a new sport, too, paddleboarding, which I did whenever I could. Obviously, you can’t do much of it in Paris, but I was in Arizona for seven months, and I paddleboarded there and in California. I love it. 

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

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