(Published in Trialogue’s “Environmental Handbook” 2010 edition)
If you want your company’s environmental initiatives to have impact and endurance, passionate people are essential to drive the process. They spread and embed environmental values in the company, helping it become a sustainability leader.
Hugh Tyrrell of GreenEdge creates internal and external sustainability communications and marketing programmes for companies. Here he discusses how to draw environmental change agents into the process and support them with communication, awareness and other initiatives. 
The context in which business and industry operate has altered dramatically. The post-war boom of the 1950s heralded an era of ‘conspicuous consumption’ when there were plentiful natural resources and fewer people.
Today, the world is in a very different situation – with billions more people, a severely depleted natural resource base and global warming a real danger. Change is certainly needed.
Most businesses are risk-averse and understandably work towards a status quo which maintains profitability. Change and especially deep change – which is what sustainability and greening requires – is often resisted. People themselves however, are sensing and seeing what is happening around them, and because individuals change a lot faster than organisations, a new set of personal values – ethical, sustainable, green values – are rising.
‘Conscious’ consumerism is spreading at home and in the marketplace. Many staff too want to act out their environmental concerns where they spend eight hours of the day – at work. This can be harnessed as a valuable human resource to a company, particularly at a time when going green is becoming much more widespread in business.
What can companies do to harness this enthusiasm and channel it to the overall good of the company, customers, community and environment? How do companies identify and develop their environmental change agents ?
Qualities of an environmental change agent
An environmental change agent inspires, advocates and models sustainable values and practices within the organisation – and also externally to customers and suppliers. Internally, she or he will be able to support line managers in implementing environmental management systems. Environmental champions are useful at all levels of the organisation, where they function as peer-to-peer green advocates and ambassadors.
A successful environmental change agent has qualities of passion, dedication, sensitivity, tact and persistence. Passionate people have the energy to drive the value change process, and can also be trained up to assist in technical implementation. Perseverance is essential because change requires a long, slow, drip-by-drip approach.
Passion without a strong sustainability business case will however see change being blocked within the organisation. In the business environment, green changes must benefit the company, creating eco-efficiencies, productivity improvements, additional customers and a return on investment. Idealism and zeal is fine, but business benefits must be communicated to management.
An environmental change agent is a team player with strategic suss and an understanding of the company’s organisational dynamics (i.e. how decisions get made, formal and informal power and information networks). To be truly successful, a change agent also need to be the sort of person who makes things happen, who likes getting things done.
Environmental change agents can help by measuring the company’s resource flows and, working together with line-managers, find ways to reduce them.
If positive financial returns on environmental improvement can be made, management will be well disposed to provide more budget to see if greater improvements can be made. Setting benchmarks and helping achieve reduction targets is how change agents create positive feedback and build the strength of their mission and the greening process.
Encouraging environmental champions to come forward
If you’re in management and seeking to identify change agents, create an enabling environment to draw them out. Environmental change agents often can’t hide their enthusiasm: keep your eyes and ears open for who is already saying or doing greener things.
Let staff know that management is taking on sustainability and invite everyone to participate and take ownership in envisioning the company in a sustainable future. Invite ideas on greening initiatives and see who steps up or sends in suggestions. Send out an open invitation for an informal green team get-together or lunch (with organic catering, of course). Let a voluntary green team come together and organise to meet regularly.
Ask the team to formally propose improvements such recycling, water and energy conservation or pollution control. If they start with projects that can be easily measured and improved upon, it will lay the basis for more ambitious projects by demonstrating to management that green initiatives show results.
Creating and sustaining an enabling environment:
- If you are a champion and management is reluctant to support you, read up and research possible eco- efficiencies, savings and market advantages. Join with others and build these into a compelling ‘business case’ for sustainability in your company. Present your case to management with the aim of formalising sustainability into the mainstream of the business and as a corporate objective.
- If you’re in management, provide sponsorship, leadership and resources for training and expertise to implement the improvements (bringing in external specialists where necessary)
- Encourage champions (as well as all staff) to suggest innovations and savings on the shop floor and at their desks.
- Enable champions to help document the company’s sustainability story or journey. Include measured savings with metrics wherever possible.
Introducing and embedding change is an arduous process, and the most enthusiastic people can become discouraged. Here are some ideas to keep up the passion:
- Provide incentives for the best enviro-suggestions or improvements
- Hold monthly or quarterly green queens or kings awards
- Build environmental performance into staff key performance indicators
- Give champions leadership positions and responsibilities
- Let staff know that increasing their green commitment, awareness and contributions is a sure way up the career ladder
It is well worth investing time and resources to support change agents. As highly motivated staff members, they are more likely to stay loyal to the company if their concerns are met, and will increase their productivity manyfold if they feel inspired, fulfilled and recognised.
Staff awareness and education programmes
It’s important that all staff get to understand sustainability principles and the bigger picture, why it is important and how it relates to what they can do at work. Sustainability has a language of its own, and the jargon around sustainability and greening needs to be understood by everyone so that they can start talking the same language. That’s when things really start to move.
Company-wide awareness programmes can:
- provide an understanding of the changed world and socio-economic picture and why it is important to take on sustainability for business as well as personal reasons.
- provide the common language and mental models so staff can discuss, share and innovate environmental improvements together.
- empower staff with the technical skills to make eco-efficiencies pay.
- enable staff to articulate the sustainability values underpinning the company culture and objectives to customers and suppliers.
Becoming a green market leader
For your company to become an change agent in your industry sector, you should be on your own sustainability journey. With policies and targets in place, report on your sustainability performance as part of triple bottom line reporting (and in line with King 3 requirements), to the JSE Sustainability Index, the Carbon Disclosure Project – whatever is relevant and leading in your sector.
This is will help raise your profile on the green radar screen. And as you reach your sustainability milestones, have marketing and PR communicate these achievements internally and externally. This avoids green-washing, because your marketing and PR is based on concrete actions as part of a well-devised sustainability strategy to which the company is committed.
Reputation-building initiatives could also include sponsoring awards, leading peer-to-peer best practice learning/sharing initiatives, and lobbying industry associations and government to set environmental standards – which you will be ahead on anyway. As part of your sustainability journey, you will be pressuring your supply chain to go greener too. Wal-Mart now requires compliance to 15 sustainability principles from all of their 60 000 suppliers worldwide. Use your influence to spread the message through your industry and beyond.
Taking your company’s role further in the industry will require dedicated change agents, skilled sustainability management and staff commitment through to the highest level. Once the CEO has taken it on and is leading from the front, your company will be able to make the big leap, shifting your green change agenda from transitional to transformational.
Leading in the marketplace is the ultimate expression of your influence: innovating and making a profitable success of sustainable practices, products and services serves as examples to peers in your sector. Become a change agent – the green, low-carbon economy is here.
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