7 Questions for a Sustainability Professional: Sarah Ziomek, DFW Airport

By Anna Kay Reeves

Have you ever thought of an airport as an ecosystem? Sustainability professionals at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport look at operations with an ecosystem perspective to better understand how systems impact one another and maximize resource efficiency. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) strategy is a priority at DFW; from becoming the first carbon-neutral airport in the Americas to training employees to spot and stop human trafficking, the airport makes the most of its position as a travel hub to achieve ESG goals. DFW Airport’s status as a global leader in sustainable transportation and ESG impact is thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of strategists like Sarah Ziomek, Enterprise Sustainability Programs Manager at DFW Airport.

How would you explain the importance of ESG strategy to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?

“In simple terms, an ESG strategy is a way for a company to proactively manage the environmental, social, and economic impacts of its activities as well as the impacts of environmental, social, and economic factors on business performance. In other words, it includes both an internal and an external focus on the environment, people, and economics – the ‘triple bottom line’ of sustainability. 

Developing and implementing an ESG strategy enables a company to identify and manage risks, enhance its reputation, engage stakeholders, and drive business value.”

Impact by the numbers: DFW Airport covers more than 17,000 acres, uses 100% renewable energy from Texas wind farms, and recycled, reused, or salvaged more than 57,000 tons of construction waste in 2022.

When planning environmental sustainability targets, what do you use as a guide to set these goals and commitments? (i.e. successful industry models, stakeholder concern, natural resource use?)

When updating our sustainability management plan and corresponding commitments, we looked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), a set of 17 global goals designed to address the world’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges. Then, we mapped these global goals to our specific business objectives. As a result, we ultimately settled on six key focus areas for our strategy, effectively illustrating the connectivity between sustainability goals and business performance.

One underlying theme across our strategy is to drive a net positive impact. In Net Positive, Paul Polman and Andrew Winston define a net positive business as one “that improves well-being for everyone it impacts and at all scales…and even future generations and the planet itself.”  This concept is echoed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle as doing “more good” instead of “less bad.”

DFW’s six “Sustainability North Stars”: Climate Action; Energy Performance; Circular Economy; Water & Biodiversity; Equity; and Health, Safety, and Wellness. These priorities align with elements of all 17 UN SDGs.

What is the first step for implementing ESG strategy for a company looking to engage in environmental sustainability for the first time? 

A good first step is to start with an analysis of macro trends – global issues that may impact your business today or in the future. Since sustainability involves future-proofing, it’s important to develop your strategy with a forward-looking mindset. This review will position you to conduct a materiality assessment – a process to identify the issues that are most relevant to your company’s operations and its stakeholders.

Once you have prioritized key issues to address and determined your company’s baseline performance in these areas, you can develop an ESG strategy with specific, measurable, and time-bound targets. It’s critical to establish a system for monitoring and reporting on your progress toward these targets early on. This will help ensure that commitments are backed by action.

In 2022, what was your most interesting lesson learned in your work as a sustainability professional?

One lesson that I have learned is the importance of systems thinking. The challenges we face are complex and interconnected, and sustainability professionals must be able to analyze the interconnections and interdependencies between different systems (or disciplines within an organizational structure) to identify the root causes of issues and implement effective solutions.

What component of working in environmental sustainability is your favorite and why? (ie. Water, wildlife, biodiversity, operational innovation, waste diversion, land, energy etc.)

It’s hard to pick! I was drawn to the field of sustainability because of the interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving that it encourages. I’m an environmental scientist by training, and my background is in ecology, so I really enjoy working on biodiversity-related projects. More recently though, I’ve grown to love working on waste diversion initiatives. Waste is a problem that every individual has a personal connection to as well as an ability to positively influence

From the eyes of an environmental sustainability professional, what makes a conservation project stand out? What can conservation projects do to make it easier to partner with them? 

The landmark 1987 Brundtland Report, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development, defined sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report emphasized that the concept of sustainability recognizes the limits imposed by finite natural resources and the planet’s ecological means. Conservation and environmental protection are inherent in the concept of sustainable development. 

“We found everywhere deep public concern for the environment, concern that has led not just to protests but often to changed behavior. The challenge is to ensure that these new values are more adequately reflected in the principles and operations of political and economic structures.” – Our Common Future (aka the Brundtland Report)

A project that stands out is one that generates not only environmental benefits but also social and economic benefits. This is known as the triple bottom line approach, and projects that apply this mindset make great partners. Such a holistic approach ensures that a project is not just good for the environment, but also good for people and businesses in the long run. 

What sustainability goal are you most looking forward to working on in 2023? 

I’m looking forward to making progress on our goal to improve our landfill diversion rate. At DFW, we’re implementing a circular economy approach to waste management, which aims to keep materials in use and design out waste and pollution. In 2023, we will expand our composting program, improve recycling collection processes, and increase education around waste management practices. 

Fast-paced and dependent on resource-intensive infrastructure, an airport is emblematic of the challenges — and the opportunities — for industry to engage in sustainability. DFW Airport’s principled approach to ESG strategy provides an example to airports around the world of how to achieve environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. 

Texan by Nature’s vision is for every business and every Texan to participate in conservation, and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation for the world. 

We’re grateful to Sarah, DFW Airport, and the many sustainability professionals and companies who are future-proofing their businesses and our state with operational innovations and conservation investments that advance environmental sustainability in their sectors and provide successful models for the globe to follow. 

Learn more about the annual TxN 20 program, which recognizes leadership in environmental sustainability in industry, by visiting the TxN 20 website, and keep an eye out for more insight from other sustainability professionals to come.

More about Sarah Ziomek

Sarah Ziomek is the Enterprise Sustainability Programs Manager at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW Airport) and is responsible for developing and advancing DFW’s sustainability strategy, implementing the Airport’s roadmap to achieve net zero by 2030, overseeing the environmental grants program, and managing the zero waste program. She supports the Airport’s strategic partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as the DFW lead on projects related to energy optimization and renewables integration for buildings and fleets. 

Sarah received her B.S. and M.S. in Environmental Science from Texas Christian University. She is a Certified Ecologist and has served in the capacity of environmental scientist and wetland specialist. Her previous experience includes environmental consulting for multiple industries as well as work for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and the National Park Service.  In her free time, Sarah enjoys spending time outdoors playing tennis, cycling, and backpacking.