Inspirational Woman: Debbie Hitchen | Sustainable Production & Consumption Director, Anthesis Group

Debbie HitchenDebbie leads the Anthesis (UK) Sustainable Production and Consumption team.

She is recognized for her ability to build and manage multi-stakeholder teams and her capability to deliver complex, collaborative and sensitive projects which deliver measurable sustainability outputs for client companies and organizations. She has an extensive understanding of the drivers and challenges of sustainable materials management having worked in a local authority, a not for profit, and at a leading UK producer responsibility compliance organization in her early career.  She has spent over 15 years in consultancy with a focus on product stewardship and circular economy. Debbie’s project portfolio is international and includes work with many of the leading global players in the retail and consumer goods sector as well as pharmaceuticals. She is a regular speaker at events on the topic of sustainable production and consumption, packaging and circularity.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’ve been working in sustainability for over 25 years and I’m currently the lead for Sustainable Production & Consumption in Anthesis UK, overseeing over 50 people in my team. We are the Sustainability Activator helping organisations to focus their sustainability ambitions for the Decisive Decade. We provide broad and deep sustainability expertise with robust commercial and operational capabilities.

The work I do, and that of our wider teams, is really current. There is never a dull day in this role! Sustainability has become front and centre for so many people and organisations in recent years. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never been busier than this last 12 months during the Covid-19 pandemic. I think it’s because it has created a wake-up call for societies around the world and helped to illustrate the scale of impact that a climate crisis would generate.

My own technical expertise is related to sustainable product and packaging development. I mostly support businesses to evaluate options to reduce the materials they use in their design and manufacturing processes and to support reuse, recyclability and circularity. Thanks to Sir David Attenborough and the ‘Blue Planet’ series, we’ve experienced massive interest in our services. It’s rewarding to see sustainability resonating with such a diverse stakeholder group globally from children to community figureheads, business leaders and presidents.

I’m fortunate to work in a fast-paced, dynamic and entrepreneurial business that is supportive of career progression and operates a refreshing model which values merit and trust over command/control management systems. I’m proud to be a member of the company’s Senior Leadership Team; and as well as being a technical practice lead, I’m also a mentor to emerging leaders within the business.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No not really! I studied for a Materials, Resources & Environment degree. I chose it because it looked like it offered interesting course content, that was more vocational than the traditional geography courses that were available at the time. When I graduated, I proactively targeted a range of organisations to ask about their environmental goals and whether they needed resources to support their journey. I was a bit ahead of the trend at that time.

It was a local authority that gave me my first professional position as a waste recycling officer, and a foot on the sustainability ladder. Not only was it a great learning opportunity, but it was also an example of one of the most progressive authorities in the UK, being amongst the first to set up a sustainable development division.

It was that experience of being at the cutting edge which encouraged me to apply for my next role. It was with a new organisation that was working with product producers and the waste management sector to meet the compliance requirements of a newly enacted piece of environmental legislation to increase recycling.

Some years later I left to join another new organisation that was creating recycling infrastructure to boost collection and treatment. It was a not for profit, but as the competition for funding and government support intensified, I took up a business development role and was responsible for establishing a commercial consultancy arm to the business.  It wasn’t my intention to own a company, but when the NGO and the commercial subsidiary appeared to be struggling to co-exist, I formed part of a small management buy-out team. Our motivation was to continue to the good work we’d started and to create a place to nurture talent and grow the resource pool for the sector. In 2015 we identified that Anthesis represented a great opportunity to continue that mission and move to the next part of the company’s lifecycle.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Not really. I’ve found that positive mental attitude, strong working relationships and hard work can overcome most of the challenges that I’ve faced day to day.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’m very proud of our decision to merge our little business, LRS Consultancy, with Anthesis. Its hard to recognise your own limitations as a leader and harder still to admit that you might not be able to achieve the full potential of something if you don’t make changes. But it felt like a great cultural fit from the outset and I’ve really blossomed as a leader as well as an individual. I’m especially pleased to still be working with a good number of my colleagues who came with us; we have over 15 years of shared experiences, knowledge, laughter lines and grey hairs!

I’m passionate about delivering change for good and if we can deliver on the Anthesis Activator Agenda over the next 10 years, I think that in years to come I will be proud to be able to say to future generations that I played a small part.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Determination!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Throughout my career I’ve had several mentor relationships. I’m privileged to be currently benefiting from the support and advice of someone I really respect and with whom I click. I think that for mentoring to be a worthwhile experience you have to have that trust and respect on both sides. To get the best out of discussions its important to feel you can open up, be vulnerable and tackle difficult topics. It’s a two-way street though and the mentor also needs to invest in that relationship. I know plenty of people who have been appointed a mentor by their business, only to find that it isn’t a great fit. My advice in those circumstances would be to see if there are other options available that might suit better.

I’m currently mentoring several emerging leaders in the business as part of a formal process. But I also have weekly hour-long open-door sessions which are available for any colleagues to book into to have career and personal development discussions. I’d like to think that I have some valuable experience to pass on during these conversations, and I can also help steer individuals to other mentors and support opportunities internally and in our wider industry networks.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I don’t think that there is one simple fix, but in my view, there are some key easy wins which will improve DE&I for all colleagues. These include, offering flexible and homebased contracts, creating mentor or employee support groups, introducing recruitment and performance review processes that remove unintended bias, and addressing the gender pay gap.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Early in my career I struggled with self-belief, and I still have to give myself a talking to sometimes. I have a tendency, which I think is quite common in women, to think others are better or more suited than I am. I learned the hard way that this is not only exhausting but also can erode confidence in the team that surrounds you. If the leaders has self-doubt the rest of the team becomes more inwardly focused and unsure too.

So my advice would be never underestimate yourself, be confident in your abilities, but combine this with an equal dose of authenticity and humility.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The thing I love about working at Anthesis is that its such a dynamic business. The structure rewards passion, hard work and commitment. I don’t know what’s round the corner, but we’re working towards a great 10 year vision that I’m invested in and whatever comes along on that road is bound to be both stretching and exciting.


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