‘Proving the story of sustainability’: Q&A with SBP’s Brenda Hopkin
By Ellen Cools
Brenda Hopkin has been involved in the consulting world since the mid-1980’s and she established her own business, Hopkin Forest Management in the mid-1990’s. In 1999, she began working in sustainable forest management with forest companies, helping them become certified to different standards. In 2016, joined the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP). She is now leading the SBP Regional Risk Assessments across Canada, helping to promote the wood pellet industry’s sustainability story.
Canadian Biomass: What was your career path that led you to the biomass industry?
I got my degree at the University of Alberta back in the mid-80’s. Then I moved to B.C. in the late 80’s and started contracting. My whole career has always been working for a contractor or being a contractor. Around 1999, I started getting involved with forest companies – mostly tenure-owners and lumber companies in ISO 14000. That’s when companies began to get involved in the certification world. In and around that time, in the early 2000’s, I got into sustainable forest management initiatives like CSA and FSC. So, I did a lot of work with the certification at the forest management level and chain of custody. I ended up being an independent contractor – I would help companies become certified, reviewing their management material, their operations and verifying them against whatever standard they were signing up for. I was also an auditor, so I worked for the certification bodies. I felt that was a really good skillset to offer both clients, whether I was working for certification body or an organization that was trying to be certified.
In 2016, the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) started to become more the scheme of choice for the pellet plants because it was a requirement for market entry into the European market. I was contacted by some colleagues that I had worked with, and they asked me if I wanted to become involved with certification in the pellet industry. Through that, in November 2017, I met Gord Murray. That’s when I got more directly involved with the wood pellet association and certification of the pellets.
Canadian Biomass: What is it that you like most about the industry?
What I like most about working in the industry is I see the real opportunity of wood pellets providing another use for byproducts of the lumber industry. Wood pellets are often made from sawmill residuals, which is great because the industry has been changing, stopping the beehive burners, etc. It’s also an opportunity to better utilize leftover fibre in the bush. I think there’s an opportunity for wood fibre to be utilized in the pellet industry, especially given our situation where we are trying to increase ecosystem restoration in some of our forests. Currently in B.C., we have lots of wildfire-standing dead, and if there’s an opportunity to use that in the pellet industry, then we could get those forests back into production.
I think in the past, the forest industry did not have to do as much marketing to highlight its benefits to the public – they used to be the reason why communities existed, but now there’s been a fundamental society shift, whether we in the industry like it or not. There is some concern about the sustainability of the industry but, with social media and things like that we’re able to get our message out there. I think there are a lot of myths, and I think the industry can do a lot to clean up, but we need to start promoting the sustainability message and the science behind it.
Canadian Biomass: What is your role now and what do you like most about it?
What I like about SBP or any of the certification systems is it’s trying to define what values are important and the verification of those values that’s being done. I like the companies that I’ve worked with that were at the forefront of getting into certification; I find them to be leaders. So, I think there’s a real opportunity if you want to be a leader. With SBP, it’s a certification system that’s trying prove the story of sustainability and the legality of the feedstock sourcing. I like that it’s trying to make consumers feel comfortable about the product that they’re getting.
Canadian Biomass: Have you had any mentors that helped guide you in your career?
Everybody that I’ve worked with over my years I’ve really looked up to, working with them as a team member and learning from them. When I first graduated from university, I had an opportunity to work for a woman that was a teacher’s assistant when I went to university with in Alberta. Her name was Berken Feddersen, and she had her own business in Victoria. So, I came to contract from her, and I really learned a lot – her perseverance and her integrity really demonstrated to me at that time that I could provide a service based on my expertise and knowledge. So, in terms of establishing myself as an individual contractor, she was somebody I looked up to. But, over the years, there’s been so many people that have made me want to be a better person and a better professional.
Canadian Biomass: How important do you think mentorship is to fostering more diversity and inclusion in the industry?
I would think of it as passive and active mentorship. My experience would have been more passive – just that inherent relationship of people and my want to become better, whereas I think from the perspective of veterans in the industry, I think it’s super important to provide that mentorship or experience that would help people be more exposed to opportunities for their careers.
Canadian Biomass: Have you encountered any particular challenges or difficulties as a woman in the industry?
Nothing jumps out at me. I think some of my challenges have been possibly more because of my personality and being very upfront and to the point. But, there have been a couple of times where I said something and then a male colleague on my team said the same thing, and it was accepted when he said it and it wasn’t necessarily accepted when I said it. That could have been the timing of the comment, but I definitely think times are changing.
Canadian Biomass: What do you think needs to be done to encourage more women into the biomass industry?
I guess you would have to assume first that there’s an impediment for women to get into the industry, but I think with any industry, it’s about what’s of interest to people. Much like any part of the forest industry, in the biomass sector, there’s the forestry piece, which would attract people who want to be out in the woods, and there’s the engineering side. I think there’s a real opportunity with the wood pellet industry as an energy supply. Now, especially as we’re talking about people coming out of university, I would say it has to be an industry that attracts people because it has a good message. Maybe the bioenergy story sells better to folks knowing that it’s another energy source that’s an opportunity.
Canadian Biomass: What advice do you have for women interested in a career in forestry, or women who are looking to advance to leadership positions in the industry?
I’m not sure that it’s specific to the biomass industry, but you have to have the keenness to get in, and personally, integrity is huge for me, so you have to be honest. You have to be confident enough to know what you know and know what you need to ask about, and look to the right people to answer those questions. Again, there are lots of opportunities to do a good job. I think looking back on my career, I should have asked more for some help. I should have been working smarter, not harder, and part of that comes down to reaching out to other people for help, as opposed to feeling like you should know everything.
The one thing with the pandemic and the movement towards Zoom calls, it’s an opportunity to attend more and see more. I think there are a lot more opportunities for professional development and chances to see different perspectives, like attending a diversity and inclusion webinar for a different industry, where you can see how they’re proactively handling problems, etc.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2022 and #BreakTheBias.
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