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Q&A with Tara Norton

Chief Sustainability Officer, Navico
Navico’s materiality assessment identified top environmental priorities for the company.

Navico’s materiality assessment identified top environmental priorities for the company.

In February 2021, Navico hired Tara Norton as its first-ever chief sustainability officer. At the time, Navico had already started working on sustainable packaging for its products, and CEO Knut Frostad said the company was “poised to be a leader in this ongoing paradigm shift as our industry moves toward more sustainable practices.”

Norton has spent the past year assessing Navico’s environmental impact and defining sustainability goals. At the same time, Brunswick Corp. acquired Navico — parent company of Lowrance, Simrad Yachting, B&G and C-MAP — and hired its own chief sustainability officer. That means the efforts Norton has been making at Navico will now become part of a broader ecosystem that includes Brunswick boatbuilders, engine manufacturers and more.

“It was hugely exciting to me to get acquired by Brunswick and see them bring in a chief sustainability officer,” Norton told Soundings Trade Only in early May. “The more we can work together as an industry, the better off we’re going to be. The more leadership we see, the better off we’re going to be.”

When you started, you said one of your first priorities was to determine Navico’s environmental impact. How have you gone about that?

I had talked about doing the materiality assessment and measuring our carbon footprint. The materiality assessment, in the sustainability world, it’s a very corporate approach. Sustainability is such a broad topic, and it can mean a lot of things to everybody, so you really want to start by saying, what does it mean to us?

You take a long list of sustainability issues — upward of 100 topics — and you whittle them down, and then interview your internal and external stakeholders, and that gives you a perspective on what we care about, what we have influence over, what is important to our business, what resonates with our employees and our customers.

What did Navico’s materiality assessment reveal?

The priorities we identified were 15 top issues. The top five are environmental in nature, which is not surprising. The first one is about clean oceans and healthy waterways — what can Navico do to work on that? The second is sustainability in fishing and conservation. The next issue is energy transition, everything we can do on alternative propulsion, things like hybrid boats and electric boats.

Then one that’s a bit broader, about supporting our customers in their own transition to sustainability — how does our technology help to enable others to achieve their sustainability ambitions? An example would be Simrad Yachting partnering with a boatbuilder on hybrid water taxis in Venice, Italy. Anywhere we can partner with customers in that area. And the last area, which we were most vocal about, was about the physical life cycle of our products. Packaging was where we started — reducing the size of the packaging, moving to sustainable materials.

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There are a couple of reasons. In business, cost drives a lot of decisions, and with packaging, the more unsustainable a material it is, the cheaper it usually is. You also have to do things like reduce the amount of packaging. If you said tomorrow that you’ll keep everything the same size and volume, and just move from plastic to paper packaging, you would increase your costs. You have to do a whole redesign. And then there’s the whole issue of the performance of the materials. We had tried some more innovative packaging materials, and it didn’t work. It’s a design question. Also, the unsustainable packaging materials are so pervasive that if you get into a last-minute sourcing crunch, it’s very easy to fall back on the more unsustainable materials.

What have you learned about Navico’s carbon footprint?

The way you calculate emissions, scope-one is your direct emissions: what you burn in your factories. It’s puffs of smoke coming off your assets. Scope-two emissions is the power that you purchase, so that’s any energy purchases or fuel purchases that you make for things like vehicles. Scope-three is everything that you influence.

It used to be that companies would get away with reporting scope one and two, but think about it — look at the food industry. If you’re a food manufacturing company, it can be easy to say these are what our emissions are, but if you look at the impact of palm oil production or beef production, that’s scope three. That’s your supply chain.

In the boating industry, it’s also about how people are using your products, things like how people are using their boats and what kinds of emissions are involved there. If you do the math, the downstream impact is still quite small. It’s about the energy used to run our equipment. That’s different from the energy used to run the whole boat. But upstream — where the materials are coming from, the impact of the logistics and trucking that get our materials to us — that is interesting. We’ll have a lot more to say on this later, but we have started to measure our footprint.

Measuring your footprint in terms of the supply chain must be challenging amid all the supply-chain problems from the pandemic.

Supply-chain relationships are about being a good partner. It’s about understanding where your products are coming from, and who you are sourcing from directly, and who is in their supply chain. The more information you have about your supply chain, the better able you are to work out who your best partners are.

So in that sense, the deeper dives that everyone has been making just to keep parts and supplies flowing dovetails with your efforts to learn more about sustainability?

Right. Our supply-chain team is amazing, and that marries really well in terms of sustainability. One of the things we’ve done that I’m quite proud of is that we’re the first marine electronics company to join the Responsible Business Alliance. What they do, essentially, is look at the social, environmental and governance risk of suppliers in that global electronics supply chain, and they offer tools and training and networking and conferences around all kinds of topics, including sustainability. We joined that to try and gain more of an understanding about our suppliers — our hundreds of suppliers — to work out where they may be and what kinds of risk they might present to us.

We’ve found some very willing partners in our supply chain who are already active in this space. It’s helping us identify partnerships in a way that are aligned with the sustainability agenda. Our chief supply-chain officer and the head of procurement, we are very aligned on this.

You have wondered aloud whether it might be feasible to set up something similar to what exists for smartphones, a kind of trade-in system where companies like Navico encourage consumers to bring a product back so it can be recycled. What have you learned about that?

In some ways, it’s happening already. Where you offer product rebates to consumers, when they want to come and buy a new Navico product and they bring another product back, they get a discount. That’s one way of recovering those products, so the models exist. One of the challenges is that this has to be a local initiative. We can’t have a global approach to this. The way that you might bring a product back in one place is different from how you might do it in another place — the logistics, the waste management, all of that is different. At the moment, when we get our products back, we disassemble them and use what we can, and then we dispose of them responsibly.

One of the things we had to do was take all of the materials that we could potentially buy in packaging and rank them. We gave them a sustainability ranking. Any material that we buy has a ranking, so we can track how we’re doing on sustainability. So when Knut says that 94 percent of our packaging is now sustainable, he’s saying that 94 percent fits into the upper echelon of this ranking. Getting that ranking has been a really helpful way for us to make those decisions.

Would Navico be willing to share that ranking information with other marine companies that want to make sustainable choices about packaging?

The more we can drive change and collaborate, the better off we’re going to be. It’s something we would be open to talking with others about. And there’s also life-cycle assessment. That’s where you take a product-based approach. You can look at where is the biggest energy footprint, where is the biggest impact on nature — where do I need to worry about? There’s a company called MarineShift360 that has tools available to help companies with these kinds of questions.

Let’s also talk about the real world, after Navico’s products are sold. What are you thinking about in terms of helping customers use products more efficiently?

There’s one aspect that is actually the technology itself — what can we do as creators of that technology — and then there’s the way customers are using it. On a boat, if you put the Eco Mode before the Power Mode, that’s a behavioral tweak. If you give users of boats even more information, or if you do training to create more awareness of the more efficient ways to use boats, that can be a huge win. It’s not about finding the materials that are new and innovative; it’s about changing behavior.

What else should the industry know based on everything you’ve learned so far?

The context for this is not very hopeful. There’s a report I was just looking at, “Avoiding Ocean Mass Extinction from Climate Warming.” There’s a scenario that by 2300, there’s mass extinction in the oceans. With the agenda around sustainability and conservation, we are in a position in our industry to care about the water and the oceans in ways that other people don’t. We somehow need to do more. We all know it, and we all nod, but there is a gap between the understanding and the urgency. That’s why the materiality exercise is so important. It helps you break it down. Now we have five to 15 things we’re going to be working on. I really feel like people are trying. They’re all working on it in their own ways in their own departments. It’s great. 

Navico hired Tara Norton as its first chief sustainability officer in early 2021.

Navico hired Tara Norton as its first chief sustainability officer in early 2021.

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.

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