As expanding policies and an evolving domestic and international regulatory landscape encourage companies to implement ambitious, yet achievable and measurable, environmental and social goals, there is a growing need for public companies to respond to the priorities of regulators, investors and consumers alike. Nearly five years into her role as executive vice president and general counsel at Pentair and after 18 months as the company’s chief social responsibility officer, Karla Robertson has a unique role and perspective when it comes to impacting how the company navigates through growth and governance. Below, Karla reflects on Pentair’s efforts to advance the positive effects of its business, highlighting the progress cited in its recent Corporate Responsibility Report, and shares her vision for the future.
More and more we’re seeing the general counsel play a role in sustainability for leading organizations; how did you come into your role at Pentair?
Karla Robertson: Working to make a positive societal impact has been at my core since I began my career. For several years before law school, I did public interest work on behalf of victims of domestic violence and experienced firsthand the importance of driving a positive impact in individuals’ lives and the world. This experience, along with attending law school as a public interest Chancellor’s Scholar, inspired me to continue to weave social responsibility into my legal career. This has taken various forms as I have worked as an attorney at a law firm, as an in-house employment counsel at a large retail corporation and also as in-house counsel at a food and beverage wholesaler and retailer, where I advanced to executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary.
Since joining Pentair in 2017, I have worked closely with our executive leadership team and board of directors on governance topics, which naturally included the environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues that a chief social responsibility officer oversees. Pentair did not have a formalized program with a dedicated leader to drive social responsibility priorities and lead the company’s purposeful strategy. We recognized that such a program was aligned with Pentair’s purpose, "Win Right" values and long-term value creation proposition. So, the company and board of directors made the decision to establish a program and appoint me as the dedicated leader.
At the time, appointing me to lead these efforts may have seemed like an atypical decision, as some may not view a general counsel’s role as naturally fitting outside of the traditional confines of legal advising and risk management. But fundamentally, corporate social responsibility is a combination of business partnership, strategy, compliance and a risk-management discipline that requires an understanding of moral and ethical considerations — which, for those of us in the legal profession, fits well within our areas of expertise and contributions that we can bring to an organization. So, this combined role is something that I am seeing more and more.
Tell us about leading ESG for a company like Pentair. What are driving factors in setting an ESG strategy?
Robertson: At Pentair, we strive to make life’s essential resources better — for people and our planet — and create a better world through our products and solutions. We’re driven every day by this commitment to ensure our vision is aligned with that of our stakeholders. This is why one of the first major efforts to build the foundation of our work was completing a materiality assessment, which we did in 2020. It was important to us to set an inclusive path forward, so we engaged key stakeholders in a formal process to bring forth a wide range of voices and holistically understand priority ESG areas.
Listening to our stakeholders ensured we were on the right path and helped us to align on key focus areas, including focusing on our water stewardship and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, innovating to deliver water- and energy-efficient solutions, and building both a responsible supply chain and an inclusive and diverse workforce. With oversight from our board of directors and using these priority areas as our guide, we developed Social Responsibility Strategic Targets, which we announced in 2021. This was a significant undertaking across our company, and I’m proud of our work over the past year to make progress against our targets.
Pentair recently released its 2021 Corporate Responsibility Report — the first time the company has shared progress on its Social Responsibility Strategic Targets. Can you share some highlights?
Robertson: 2021 was an important year for us as we built upon our foundation and made advancements on being a leading socially responsible company. Pentair’s targets focus on the impact our operations, products, and solutions have on people and our planet.
Some highlights include reducing our carbon footprint (total Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions in 2021 decreased 11.8 percent compared to the 2019 baseline). We also increased representation of women in our workforce to 32 percent (from 30 percent in 2019) and women in leadership positions to 31percent (from 28 percent in 2019), as well as increased representation of people of color in our U.S. workforce to 43 percent (from 39 percent in 2019) and 26 percent (from 23 percent in 2019) of our U.S. leadership positions.
I’m proud of the progress we made, but we recognize there is a lot more to do. We’re focused on the future and will continue engaging with our stakeholders on areas where we can improve.
What does it mean for Pentair to innovate with sustainability in mind?
Robertson: Product innovation is core to our business. Pentair is built on delivering smart, sustainable and resource-efficient products and solutions to create a better world. We’re working to further assess, design and commercialize our products for environmental sustainability. We now have an enhanced product innovation process that includes a product sustainability rating as an equally weighted factor in commercialization decisions and that we use for assessing all of our new products.
We’re focused on driving innovation that helps our planet thrive, and by innovating with sustainability in mind, we’re creating solutions that use fewer resources and transform waste into value.
Where do you see the industry headed? What are the priorities and biggest opportunities for Pentair?
Robertson: 2022 is another critical year to drive progress on our social responsibility strategic targets. We will continue to engage our employees across the enterprise to continue to move the needle.
Another area we and others in the industry are currently navigating is the evolving regulatory landscape — both domestically and internationally — to meet changing disclosure standards and requirements. As we position Pentair to meet these evolving requirements, we also remain focused on building long-term value with our social responsibility advancements and the positive impacts these efforts have for our employees, customers, shareholders and communities.
With respect to our communities, we will continue our philanthropic work and the work of the Pentair Foundation. Pentair and the Pentair Foundation are working with partners to increase access to clean and safe water through our Project Safewater initiative. Pentair is a company that helps to move, improve and enjoy water. We plan to continue to look for ways to build additional partnerships around our focus and to also further put our purpose into practice for people around the world today and for future generations. These collective efforts are what we call "Making Better Essential" and are an inspiration to me each day.