Championing a more sustainable workplace

Do you believe that sustainability is your boss’s responsibility? If so, you need to change your thinking.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

‘Every single person must recognise they have a role to play in sustainability and in restorative activities that support our planet. It’s about everyone putting in that 1% to make change happen,’ says Abigail Ireland, peak performance strategist and co-founder of Third Planet Collective, who helps businesses run their offices in a more eco-friendly way.

Yes, she really did say 1%. When it comes to pro-planetary behaviour, it’s been proven time and time again that small actions could make a big difference if everyone took them.

A good place to start is understanding – and then reducing – your personal environmental footprint. There’s a plethora of free online tools available that can help you do just that.

One such tool is Giki Zero, from social enterprise Giki.

‘You can use it to calculate, track and reduce your carbon footprint with personalised steps to plan out your path to zero carbon emissions,’ says Jo Hand, co-founder of Giki. There are over 120 steps to choose from, depending on what best suits your lifestyle and budget.

Sustainable behaviour in the office

It goes without saying that you should also act sustainably when at work and, ideally, motivate others to do the same.

This is easier if your organisation is committed to sustainability and encourages sustainable workplace practices. If it isn’t the case, Hand suggests taking the initiative and creating a ‘green’ team made up of other ‘greenies’.

She adds: ‘Ask a senior colleague to lend their support to the team, which will help ensure it gets attention from those who set company policies.’

Amber Harrison, sustainability expert at business consultancy Rook & Wren, suggests brainstorming how much waste your office generates and what simple and practical changes could be implemented to help the environment.

‘For example, an office of 40 people could go through 10,000 individual desk bin liners a year. Why not suggest that people share a common bin to reduce the amount of plastic that needs to be disposed of? Another area that’s easy to target is single-use items: cup stirrers, coffee and milk capsules, sugar sachets and teabags.’

Changing minds

Consider the best ways to get the rest of the office on board with your ideas, bearing in mind that some people are resistant even to small changes.

Fortunately, just talking to people can work well, especially if you can also show them why change is needed.

‘Use some strong visuals showing the effect of plastics ending up in the oceans, and suddenly you’re telling more of a story about how small individual actions can have a big impact,’ says Harrison.

Forcing someone to change their ways is never a good idea.

‘Behavioural psychology shows this can actually create more resistance, defensiveness and adverse behaviour as people feel a loss of control,’ says Ireland.

Ireland believes the best way to influence your colleagues is through action, by role modelling what sustainable behaviour looks like.

‘Studies show that we tend to mimic the actions of others, so opting for reusable coffee cups when you’re doing a coffee run – without saying a word about it – can encourage them to do the same when it’s their turn.’

She also suggests organising low-stress activities such as team building events centred around restoring an urban space and introducing plants and nature back into that space, having a team litter-picking lunchtime walk to bond and support the planet at the same time, as well as inviting colleagues to come up with their own ideas and suggestions.

‘There’s plenty of evidence that taking collective action can jump-start individual motivation and change individual behaviour’

‘In it together’ should be your motto.

Hand says: ‘Many people are concerned about the changing climate, but just don’t know what to do about it or where to start. Often they also feel that, as an individual, it’s hard to have a positive impact. However, there’s plenty of evidence that taking collective action can jump-start individual motivation and change individual behaviour.’

You can try additional incentives too.

‘The personal benefits of taking action, like the ability to live on a safe and healthy planet, should be enough. Unfortunately, this doesn’t incentivise some people, so introducing an element of status or pride around acting sustainability – for example, recognition or awards – can be helpful,’ says Ireland.

Making a business case for sustainability

But what if your employer doesn’t embrace sustainability the way you do?

‘They may be conflicted between generating profit and doing what’s right by the planet,’ points out Ireland.

You can try and win your boss around by demonstrating that sustainability can generate savings and that it’s actually a business necessity.

‘Working in finance makes you ideally placed to highlight the opportunities to reduce costs, or even liabilities for tax, if the business starts acting more sustainably,’ says Sarah Brown, director at business consultancy Inspire2aspire and author of an upcoming book, Winning by Being Good.

For example, all those single-use, individually wrapped items (coffee cups, sugar sachets, etc) cost more than their non-disposable and bulk-bought equivalents.

Harrison says: ‘You can do a simple cost-benefit analysis to show similar potential savings – even small ones will soon add up. If you can find a way to adopt sustainability practices and reduce costs, it becomes more of a case of Why wouldnt you?’

Supporting the environment by acting in a responsible way has reputational impact too.

‘There’s plenty of evidence that acting sustainably helps attract and retain millennials and generation Z employees, and reduces marketing and recruitment costs,’ says Brown.

This is even more important now that we are all trying to recover from the pandemic – studies show that employee loyalty is at an exceptionally low level.

Generally, customers and clients also prefer to do business with environmentally-friendly companies.

‘Why not prepare a simple market analysis of what your competitors are doing in terms of sustainable business practices? It makes a compelling argument to start those discussions with your boss from a “best practice” perspective. And you may be able to show that, in some cases, sustainability is a deciding factor for potential new clients,’ says Harrison.

Rethinking sustainable business

Make sure to visit ACCA’s online sustainability hub, which has been created to develop a greater understanding of the issues related to sustainability, the impact on organisations and the part you can play.