Earlier this year, I virtually attended SUSTx’s Virtual Sustainability Summit. For those of you who haven’t heard about this European event, SUSTx approaches sustainability as a whole-economy challenge and solution, bringing together (predominantly UK) businesses and organisation leaders and offering real top-level answers and actions.
During the five days of the summit, some truly inspirational speakers addressed sustainability concerns across the sectors of energy, transportation, procurement, assets, circularity and people, with the aim of knowledge sharing between a community on the road to net-zero.
Whilst there were several sessions I found engaging, I’m most interested in how to galvanise workforces around thinking and acting sustainability, and recognise significant cultural shifts are needed internally to turn the needle on environmental change. On the final day of the summit, the session titled, “How to Demonstrate Sustainability Leadership and Change Our Organisations’ Culture,” spoke to this very area.
The panel consisted of representatives from a diverse collection of organisations who shared their knowledge and were frank about their organisations’ sustainability challenges, including the support needed to make lasting, impactful and large-scale change. From Lloyds Banking Group and The Crown Estate to OneTrust ESG, IEMA and Rolls-Royce, the organisations represented on the panel – although diverse in size, operations and output – displayed synergy and similarities in advocating the need to move the conversation around sustainability away from convention and corporate centricity.
The panelists suggested an approach which advocates champions of sustainability at a grassroots level and through a far more ingrained, everyday cadence as highlighted below.
Promoting a sustainable culture in the workplace: What should we do and how should we do it?
How could and should sustainability be promoted in an organisation and where do we start? In today’s world of acronyms and complex verbiage – ESG, CSR, materiality, etc. – is a sensible starting place. Sarah Mukherjee MBE, IEMA, suggested sustainability and diversity work together and one area which needs re-addressing is how to diversify voices within the sustainability space.
“To be sustainable, we have to be diverse and to reach all parts of the community,” she said.
A need for more ethnic and socio-economic diversity within the sustainability space led to comments around another factor organisations should be mindful of. A recent Business in the Community Research Report suggested 50 percent of people interviewed did not believe their jobs would change because of sustainability developments. The unanimous response by the panel was that change in every job as a result of sustainable practice was inevitable.
So, as pointed out by the panelists, there are disconnects in this space. Not only is the conversation not evenly represented, there is lack of awareness around how sustainability will impact individuals’ working lives. To address this, it was suggested that an organisation must give sustainability a voice at every level of business and across all departments.
Recognising the conversation should not be limited to senior management positions will promote ‘champions’ of sustainability across an organisation and normalise the topic. Judith Everett, Crown Estate, suggested positioning an individual’s involvement in sustainability action as “exciting, rather than intimidating,” thereby reducing barriers to entry and increasing uptake.
It was also suggested that the need for action in respect of the ‘bigger picture’ should be re-enforced internally. From customers to investors, the focus not only on what a company does but on how it does it, is being evaluated in decision making by stakeholders and consumers alike. Reminding employees of the importance of sustainability is crucial in the success of the business.
How do you encourage employees to ‘speak up’ around sustainability in the workplace?
It was suggested that today’s world does make the conversation of sustainability easier to access than it has historically. From the work of public figures such as David Attenborough to the exposure of the climate crisis via COP26 and media outlets, there are multiple ways be part of the sustainability conversations. The broad nature of today’s environmental and sustainability dialogue allows everyone to be involved.
Rachel Everard of Rolls-Royce suggested that in order to encourage engagement around sustainability, organisations should invest time and resources in educating the workforce through micro-learning and structured conversational sessions. Breaking down the acronyms, explaining the different challenges and integrating these discussion points into daily life encourages each staff member to look inwardly: “What does sustainability mean to me, my role, my department?”
It is important to recognise – and indeed it was an excellent reminder for me personally –that cultural change must start small before it grows. By breaking down barriers to access, an organisation can move the conversation away from corporate focus and add meaningful, individual focus for a majority of employees. Moreover, it moves the conversation away from being in the ‘realm of the experts’ and makes it instrumental in connecting colleagues across an organisation in a shared purpose.
What are the key takeaways around how best to improve an organisation’s culture around sustainability?
Change will mean different things to different organisations, dependent on how far along they are in their sustainability mission, how engaged the workforce is, and what challenges exist within the space. A unanimous acknowledgement, however, was that legislation plays a pivotal role in accelerating change.
Whilst internal change should be encouraged, change in government legislation and policy will be the driving force in shifting work responsibilities and helping employees recognise they have a role to play in affecting the sustainability agenda. Legislation forces collaboration around solutions and promotes cross-industry, inter-organisational discussions that are imperative for businesses to keep pace with change.
It was also recognised that information must be made more accessible for all. Knowledge sharing, incorporating sustainable thinking interdepartmentally, and empowerment of employees to make decisions with a consideration for sustainability are all areas which will influence cultural change in an organisation and raise awareness of the need to drive a sustainable future.
Finally, building a culture where employees feel comfortable to voice opinions and question how sustainability relates to their R&Rs should be normalised. Acknowledging how sustainability can and should be considered within an individual’s work is a significant step in facilitating change internally but does not happen quickly or easily. Moreover, this should not be done in isolation. It must be promoted by leaders, who nurture a culture of exploration and open discussion within the workplace.
Demystification and simplification are imperative in improving internal culture and it should be the responsibility of an organisation to remind employees that we are ALL on this journey towards a sustainable future together – all voices in the conversation are equal, regardless of position within the organisation or society.
Attending SUSTx’s Summit was a pleasure; hearing speakers showcase their action for positive change and put themselves forward as ambassadors for sustainability spoke to my passion for a sustainable future and left me feeling part of a community, committed to change. It was a reminder that the drive to net-zero is complex and across the UK alone, hundreds of thousands of workforces must be galvanized, educated and empowered to make headway in cultural change around sustainability.
- Jemma Waters · Lloyds Banking Group
- Judith Everett · The Crown Estate
- Marleen Oberheide · OneTrust ESG
- Sarah Mukherjee MBE · Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA)
- Rachael Everard · Rolls-Royce
Check out our blog, “#IWD2022: Championing Climate Action, by Women and Girls, Is Key To Saving Our Planet.”