Advancing the Quality of Life Through ESG and Sustainability with Neil Rees

July 26, 2022

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As head of Agilent’s Environmental, Social and Governance program, Neil Rees oversees the company’s global sustainability efforts, including the company’s path to net-zero carbon emissions, product sustainability, and helping labs across the world become more sustainable.  Neil oversaw the development of the company’s first ESG report this year, including its first-ever TCFD report, capping more than 20 years of Corporate Social Responsibility reporting in which the company has set and reported on progress against its environmental goals. Recent achievements include reduced carbon dioxide emissions intensity by 35 percent since 2014, expanding an award-winning recycling and refurbishing program of its analytical lab instruments, and leading the life science sector in lab sustainability practices.  

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. This is a very special edition of the Impact as we’ve got Neil Rees with us. He’s the vice president of Workplace Services and the head of ESG at Agilent Technologies. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Neil.

Neil Rees: Thank you, John, and thanks for the opportunity.

John: Neil [inaudible] here in Fresno, California, and we’re so lucky to have you. You’re sitting in the UK today, and thank you for staying up a little extra late to be with us today. Before we get talking about all the interesting things that you’re doing and important things at Agilent, can you share a little bit about your background, how you even got here?

Neil: Yeah, sure. I have been with Agilent for thirty-four years.

John: Wow!

Neil: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing, my kids, they’re in their early 20s. They’re like, “Wow, sorry about that, Dad. What happened? [inaudible] good[?] because nobody else wants you?” Actually, it’s been a privilege. Agilent is a mission-driven company. We’ll probably get into that. I’ve had a wonderful ride for thirty-four years. I started in finance, my first fifteen years was in finance and then the company asked me if I’d like to look after the corporate real estate and environmental health and safety. I moved across and has done that for the subsequent years. Particularly, the environmental health and safety piece led me into the world of ESG. We all lived in the UK for most of that, so I got to spend 4 years with the family in California. Then we moved to Singapore for a while and then back to the UK. It’s been multiple careers in one despite the thirty-four years.

John: Yeah, for thirty-four… It’s so funny you said that because I have children also in their 20s and 30s and that generation doesn’t understand starting somewhere and staying there for a long period of time. The generation of our children seem to move around a lot more than we moved around, huh?

Neil: Mm-hmm. I think so too. Yeah, although I say I feel like although I’ve been in one company all that time, I’ve had different roles, different jobs, different countries.

John: Right.

Neil: That’s the beauty, I think, of a company like Agilent.

John: It is.

Neil: It’s very focused on talent development, very focused on providing opportunities, mission-driven, which I love. So, yeah, it’s been fabulous, don’t regret a moment of it.

John: You’re now the vice president of Workplace Services and the head of ESG, talk a little bit about when was that role created for you because obviously, like you said, you’ve had a huge breadth of experience there, but that title itself is how many years are you into that title?

Neil: We formalized our ESG program about a year ago, but prior to that, it was corporate social responsibility, prior to that, it was well known as environmental health and safety. I’ve had so many- the environmental sustainability piece of that throughout. That’s about seventeen, eighteen years. It’s really, as to say[?] in more recent years that we’ve started to use the term ESG. Agilent was [inaudible] Hewlett-Packard in ’99. Right from that point, we’ve been publishing corporate citizenship reports and we’ve been publishing our environmental data for more than twenty years now. We felt it was time to maybe move that into, I guess, today’s vernacular with our ESG program.

John: We’re going to get to that a little bit because you bring up a fascinating part about today’s vernacular with regards to what it was called ten or fifteen or twenty years ago. Let’s talk about sustainability though as a general overall concept. Why was and is sustainability important to Agilent and what is your specific role and contribution supposed to be as the role was created?

Neil: It’s super important to Agilent, a mission advancing the quality of life. I mean, you [inaudible] have a mission like that as a company. I’m not[?] really thinking about sustainability.

John: Right.

Neil: That’s why it’s always been on my mind[?] directly back to [inaudible] when Agilent was spun out. I feel the Workplace Services’ role that I’ve had has been really the perfect platform for that because that’s all of our corporate real estate. It’s all about Scope 1, it’s all about Scope 2, it’s all of the energy [inaudible] sites. My role includes travel which is Scope 3, but that’s a big part of it. Costly[?] is in my organization. It’s been a very useful to have the two roles combined because it’s kept the ESG role quite grounded because I know when I take off my ESG hat and put on my Workplace Services hat, I’ve got to go deliver this. The team’s got to find solutions and technologies and things to meet these commitments. It’s actually been a very nice combination.

John: Right. You have a health lab, so explain what the health labs does to advance sustainability to Agilent.

Neil: The labs, the [inaudible] labs?

John: Yes.

Neil: One of the interesting things… A large part of what we do is supplying analytical instruments into labs.

John: Okay.

Neil: Most labs around the world, you’ll find one or more Agilent instruments. We have cancer diagnostics and things too, which we’ll get into perhaps.

John: Right.

Neil: On the lab front, what is interesting about most analytical labs is they are very heavy consumers of power. You’ve got all of those instruments, you’ve got all these fume hoods, you have circulating high volumes of air through the lab. They consume a lot of energy. The nature of a lab often- not always, but often says that they’re dealing with nasty chemicals, either coming in or going out, more with waste and that type of thing. Compared to an office or a hospital or even a heavy industry, a lab context is actually a huge consumer. Eighty-five percent of lab managers have sustainability goals and typically as part of their own net zero commitments that their own companies have made. We see an important part of our contribution, if you like, is not just how Agilent is operating in our own net zero goals, but how can we help our customers? How can we help them improve the sustainability of their lab? We do that through a couple of different mechanisms. One is we obviously want to make sure that our products, our instruments, our consumers little energy as they can that produces less waste, [inaudible] consumers little packaging as they can. We have a program we call Design for the Environment. We want to make sure our instruments are designed with the whole life cycle in mind, including your recyclable materials and that type of thing. That’s one piece of it. The second is just helping the lab manager run the lab more efficiently. What is interesting is when you think about asset utilization, our instruments, generally, in a lab utilize about 35%, have 35% utilization. Most lab managers, only about 4% of lab managers actually even have optimization data available to them. So, another piece of what we’re trying to do is to help lab managers with the utilization, the optimization of all of the instruments in their lab, not just Agilent’s but all of the other universe of instruments. We have analytics, we have software, we have tools that help them get as much as they can out of the instruments. It’s really cool stuff as artificial intelligence is in there that tells them it is an instrument, you’re not performing properly, it measures the power supply, that kind of stuff. So, anyway, a long story short, John, it’s all about labs and heavy consumers. There’s a real opportunity in here for us to help our customers.

John: You help them achieve their goals and therefore, that creates even more stickiness with them and Agilent.

Neil: Correct. Now, we’re doing these data analytics. If they want for all of their instruments in the line[?], not just- so it’s not sticky in that sense. We’ll support competitor instruments. If we can help them achieve their net zero goals and other environmental goals, that’s obviously great for us and great for them.

John: If you’ve just joined us, we’re so excited to have with us today Neil Rees, he’s the vice president of Workplace Services and head of ESG programs at Agilent Technologies. To find Neil and his colleagues, you can go to Neil, how big is Agilent by the way? How many employees do you guys have around the world?

Neil: Seventeen thousand, roughly.

John: Seventeen thousand.

Neil: Yeah, in about thirty countries around the world.

John: Your role, Vice President of Workplace Services and head of ESG programs. Now, I’ve had the honor to interview hundreds upon hundreds of leaders in sustainability in ESG over the last fifteen years. Would this be considered the chief role of ESG or chief sustainability officer role at Agilent? Is that what you’re doing? Then you have people underneath you champing the protocols and programs that you’ve created?

Neil: Yes, that’s totally right. Yeah, I’m heading up the ESG program. We think about ESG as really a thread that runs through the whole company. Again…

John: It’s part of your DNA.

Neil: Yeah, exactly. It’s part of our mission and so we have purposely not created some huge ESG program office because we want the responsibility for ESG to be down in our manufacturing operations and our R&D organizations and our sales organizations because we feel that’s more authentic to- we operate as a company and how we can achieve our goals the best.

John: Wow. Neil, talk about the challenges and the opportunities. Obviously, you’re the leader now of these very important initiatives, and 17,000 people though, that’s a lot of people to communicate to. So, talk about, how do you leverage technology and other methodologies to communicate among the 17,000 people and ensure that this ESG is part of your DNA and everyone is executing towards that to make the company the best that it can be always?

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Neil: Yeah, we are a very matrix organization that there’s no doubt about that. That’s [inaudible] we operate. I would actually say the challenge is not getting the ESG word out to all the employees because again, they’re in a mission-driven company. They know about our focus, ESG sits right in there. If any, I think our challenge is to contain all of the groundswell of ideas and efforts and opportunities that they’re coming up with because we’ve embedded it in all the organizations. It’s not like we need to be constantly pushing out the message. It’s more of a pull, quite honestly. We have the opposite problem. Nice[?] problem to have lower 17,000 very creative, very focused employees, all wanting to make a difference.

John: Take it one step further though. You have clients and obviously, you’re trying to help your clients reach their net zero and other goals that they have within. How much feedback do you get back from your clients, Neil, with regards to how to better help them so you create more products and services that can be more even relevant to your clients as well? Is that a constant process as well getting feedback from your clients as to their needs and wants with regards to your services and technologies?

Neil: That’s a great question. What we have seen from our customers over the last 5 years or so, initially from the procurement organizations in those customers, is they’ve been asking us, what is Agilent’s goals? What is Agilent’s exhibit[?] plan? Because they only want to do business and they only want to have their supply chain with companies that are committing to net zero because obviously, we become part of their Scope 3. Now, the big change that we have seen over the last year or two is now not the procurement department but the lab managers, saying, “Hey, I’ve been tasked with making my lab more sustainable. My company has a net zero goal. I know my lab is a heavy consumer. How can Agilent help me? So, that’s what we’re seeing. We’re getting customers inviting us to round tables and work sessions to help brainstorm on what we can do to help them.

John: Got it. Neil, when I started my company, my most recent company was about 2004, ESG wasn’t part of our vernacular. It wasn’t even part of the lexicon or vernacular both you[?] and the United States or anywhere I would travel. It was then sustainability was becoming a thing, chief sustainability officers and that had its moment when Al Gore won Nobel Peace Prize for Inconvenient Truth. It went up for a while, but then as 2008 crisis hit and other challenges hit, it waned. Now, it seems as though these 2, 3 or 4 issues of ESG, the movement from the linear to circular economy, the net zero goals are here and not only here but here to stay not only with great leaders like you and great companies like Agilent but from the financial institutions, the black rocks of the world and other traditional legacy, financial institutions are greatly supporting this whole movement of linear or circular economy in ESG. What do you think about this? Do you think it’s finally here to stay, and what does ESG definitionally mean to Agilent? Because it means so many things to so many people. So, it’s interesting to hear your interpretation and Agilent’s interpretation of what ESG means in 2022.

Neil: Yeah. I think it’s here to stay. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Interestingly, there is, and I’m sure you’re seeing this too, a little bit more noise about, is this the end of ESG because maybe there’s going to be a recession and there’s [inaudible]?

John: Right.

Neil: The ground war in Europe is causing consumption of coal to go up. Is that a short template[?]? I think so. I honestly think that companies and employees that work for them will want to continue to be focused on companies that are doing good in the world. That’s our focus. I mean, we don’t want to really get caught up in [inaudible] and things. What we do in Agilent is [inaudible]. It comes back to our mission in advancing the quality of life. We want to do what we can to make sure that we run our business in the most sustainable, ethical way, that we’re providing great opportunities for our employees, safe environments to work, diverse environments to work and we want to help support our customers do that same thing. Those, if you like, are our guiding principles. We won’t hopefully get detracted by the proponents that would take us off with one direction or the detractors that would say, “Hey, this is a little baloney, and you’re wasting your time.” We want to do good as a company, but we’re in business too.

John: Of course. I always say to people this, you can’t make the world a better place or advance the quality of life as per your mission without making a profit, and there’s no shame in saying that, no shame at all. Talk about that, Neil. Obviously, you’ve been at Agilent for thirty-four years, so you have a fascinating and a ringside seat to companies’ total progression. How do you go about choosing what opportunities to tackle first and how do you structure that and make your goals in terms of 22, 23, 24? Because someone like you who has that breadth of experience, obviously, you know all the suits and strong points of where Agilent plays in but also, you know where you need to shore up. So, how are you choosing and how are you and your colleagues choosing what to tackle first on your sustainability in ESG journey?

Neil: We recently purchased the [inaudible] panels on our manufacturing site in Shanghai in China.

John: Wow!

Neil: Based on resources and things that are available at the time, it was a choice, China or California, let’s say. The reality is that the grid in China is significantly dirtier than the grid in California, which is 50%, 60%, maybe even higher now with hydro and renewables, whereas in China, the grid is 95% coal or something. Based on with that situation, we said, “Hey, we’re going to put it on the roof in China.” That actually has a much bigger impact on our carbon footprint and yet sends a great message to our employees in China and hopefully to our customers and others in China.

John: Sure.

Neil: Kind of way more impactful. That’s how we weigh up decisions on what we’re going to do. It’s really about what has the biggest impact. As I said, we get tons of ideas from our employees, which is a nice problem to have, and that we sort through them and figure out what’s our strategy.

John: Obviously, I did the homework on you and Agilent and I know you’re working on and about to release in the near future your ESG hub and report. Explain what went into the making of that and when it’s coming out, where our listeners and viewers and fans can find that report and enjoy it as well.

Neil: Yeah. It’s coming at the end of this month. They can find it on It’ll be right there on the homepage. As I said, we’ve been publishing a corporate sustainability report for nineteen, twenty years now. We’re transitioning to ESG. Really, what that means for us is we are adding additional disclosures, so we are following our net zero announcement last year. This year, we’re going to include the TFFD, the Task Force for Financial Disclosures, so we can have more data in there for people to comb through. We’re going to tell people about our 4P’s. Our whole ESG strategy in Agilent is driven on our 4P’s people. We want to have a great diverse workforce because we need that to continue to innovate and develop new technology solutions.

John: Sure.

Neil: Our products touch almost everybody on the planet. When you think about, we’re analyzing to make sure people have clean water, safe food, cancer diagnostics. So, we touch almost everybody on the planet in some shape or form. That’s people. Our products, I talked about- that’s our second P and how we’re giving our customers products that are not only more sustainable, but they then go do amazing things with those products. They’re advancing [inaudible] technologies. They’re measuring greenhouse gases. They are working on cancer, personalized medicines and that type of thing. So, that’s our products. Then we have the planet, of course, all of those things combined to make the- not just the environmental sustainability, but the social side of the planet. Again, back to our cancer diagnostics, we’re really in this world where you can understand and sequence DNA. That is really advancing the fight towards cancer… Then there’s Prosperity, that’s our fourth P. You mentioned a little bit earlier about there shouldn’t be any shame in being a business to make money. We view it as shared prosperity. We obviously want to make money as a company, that’s the only way we can invest in continuing to evolve all these amazing technologies. We think of prosperity beyond wealth, people having good health care, health care access, clean water, basic things, safe food to eat. That’s how we think about prosperity. That’s our fourth P. Back to your question, our ESG report is going to lay out those 4P’s and provide some stories around what we’re doing to contribute to each of them.

John: Neil, I’m very excited for that to come out and I’m so glad. Like you said, our listeners and viewers can find that on at the end of this month, which is July 2022. Just for people’s reference on this show, we’ll air very soon before it comes out. Someone like you, with all the experience you have and with a great brand like Agilent, you’re always wanting to make things better. What are you thinking about next year? What’s on your agenda for the second ESG hub and report? Are you already formulating it, and have you already laid out the plan for the team for your second ESG hub and report?

Neil: Good question. No as the sure answer. We’re just getting through the [inaudible] of this one [inaudible] think about next year. I will say maybe at a higher level, I think we want to continue to tell a story about how Agilent is contributing and how we’re enabling our customers to contribute because it’s not just about our ESG story and our carbon commitment because we’re providing technologies and products that enable our customers to not only reduce their carbon footprint or meet their goals, but these technologies then go on to help support the planet. If I can give you an example of [inaudible], I think it’s just fascinating. Obviously, deforestation is a big issue in the world and quite a bit of that deforestation is being caused by tropical rainforest being torn down to grow soya, palm oil, and that’s becoming a real problem for the food industry. I think it was just last week or so, I thought[?] the CEO of Unilever and Nestle, I think it was right to the financial times, both committing that they’re going to stop deforestation in their supply chain by 2025. That then begs the question, well, how are you going to do that? The palm oil, soya, there’s a commodity, so they’re grown halfway around the world. They go through multiple intermediaries and commodity exchanges. How do you know what you thought isn’t indirectly or directly the cause of some big deforestation? This is where Agilent’s technology comes in. We’re working with a university in Belfast on this ability. You can sequence the soybeans and [inaudible] from the DNA and that you can tell exactly where they came from, what their provenance was, and did they come from where they said they came from? It’s those kinds of things, technologies, that we’re introducing to try and solve some of these problems. I mean, saying no deforestation is a fabulous thing, but how do you do that?

John: Right.

Neil: So much of the ESG journey, particularly on the E, I suppose, is reliant on technologies that don’t yet exist. If we’re really going to get to 2050 net zero or hopefully earlier. That’s just one example where we’re going to help the food manufacturers really trace the source of their soybeans, their palm oil and to help them with their commitments.

John: Free COVID and now, hopefully in a post COVID world, do you travel a lot and get to see a lot of your employees in different countries, in different settings? Is that part of what you do? Or how does that really work in terms of the breadth of experience that you get? Even though I know you lived in the UK for many years and in California and Singapore, is traveling part of what you do as well?

Neil: A little bit. Yeah. We are trying very hard not to travel, obviously. The great thing I would say about, if there’s any silver lining out of COVID and I’m not sure there is, but if there is one, it’s that we’ve all learned to do much more with video and that type of [crosstalk].

John: Hundred percent.

Neil: We have leverage that hugely as a company. I think naturally, there is going to be some travel that starts.

John: Right.

Neil: We’ve been restricting travel, but there’s going to be some that comes back but nowhere near how we did travel pre-COVID. Will I go out in my Workplace Services role to look at a construction site? Probably, because you can’t do that so much of a video. Can we support our customers through video? We think so. One thing very interesting for us is we’ve invested in virtual training labs because if a customer buys an instrument, they need to be trained on how to use it. In the old- if I can call them the old days, they would jump on a plane and fly to a training center. Now, we’ve equipped some TV, world class type studios in some of our big sites and now, we can broadcast that training to the customer. Guess what, they didn’t want to get on a plane in the first place. They’re very happy.

John: Exactly, and you saved massive carbon footprint expenses for your clients. That sounds like a wonderful win for everybody, including the planet.

Neil: Yeah. We’re doing some augmented virtual reality for our… We have folks that go out to repair instruments, but now, we can give the customer an app. They can put on their VR goggles, they can look at the instrument, and we can say, “Well, tweak this here and you pull that over there and you may be able to fix it and it will avoid a [inaudible] to come out.” It’s terrific. This is the way, the future.

John: Obviously, the future is bright for Agilent. What’s next? Can you tease us on anything that’s coming up? Anything new that you’re excited about that you can tease us about in terms of Agilent and new products and services you’re coming out with?

Neil: Let me see. I think it’s going to be just continuing on the path that we’ve been on. We have some great new things in our cancer diagnostic area. That’s [crosstalk] something.

John: That’s important stuff.

Neil: It’s super cool. Last year, we acquired a company called Resolution Bioscience up in Seattle. I had shared with you in my own layman’s terms the whole biopsy thing where you [inaudible] stick it under our… Well, guess what, now, through Resolution Bioscience, you can take a blood sample, so you don’t have to do that whole invasive… It’s called a liquid biopsy and it works on the basis so that even cancer cells ultimately break down and can be found in the bloodstream. You can do a liquid biopsy, just take a blood sample, you can analyze it, you can identify, diagnose what kind of cancer. That’s something that’s super cool. That’s just how advanced the whole cancer diagnostics business [inaudible] even further.

Again, it comes back to personalized medicine. I honestly think this is the age of biology and sequencing and genomes and that type of thing. The way that you can sequence things and really, you identify the best treatment path. It gets you the treatment faster and more effectively saves money. I mean, what’s not to like?

John: I love it. Neil, thank you so much for being with us today. Coming in from the UK is Neil Rees. He’s the vice president of Workplace Services and head of ESG programs. You can find Neil and also his new ESG hub and report and his colleagues at Neil, you’re doing such great work. Thank you for advancing the quality of life, making a huge impact with Agilent and making the world a better place for all of us.

Neil: Thank you, John. Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.

John: This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to