The people have it

21st November 2011

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Following IEMA's successful 2011 conference, Sarah-Jayne Russell argues that the real key to sustainable business is people power

Environmental professionals work everyday to cajole, manipulate, shove and inspire their colleagues in a bid to spread the message of sustainability and to lower an organisation’s environmental impacts. Those were the words of Mike Peirce, director of strategy and communications at Cambridge University’s programme for sustainability leadership, as he brought IEMA’s 2011 conference to a close, and I have to say I agree with him.

Far from being the gatekeeper of the environmental management system and the compliance manager, the role of the environmental manager is all about people and, essentially, motivating them to do something. Knowing what, and how, to communicate it in order to get them to act is the real million-pound question.

On the second morning of the conference, Paul Turner, head of sustainability at Lloyds TSB, said that environmentalists had to know how to appeal to heads, hearts and wallets. We need to know how to be able to make the business case outlining cost savings to the finance manager, as well as creating a message that those on the shopfloor can buy into – whether from practical or an emotional level – and then take action on.

This is by no means simple. You need only to spend an evening watching the television to realise the diverse range in quality and success of adverts created by professionals who spend their entire working lives creating messages. The first lesson then is not to be disheartened when something doesn’t work.

Julian Feasby, head of internal environment management at the Environment Agency, in his presentation at the IEMA conference, told us not to be afraid of making mistakes. Nobody can get things right every time and the real trick is in knowing when a struggling initiative needs to be adapted, abandoned or given more time.

Feasby gave the great example of removing paper towels from the toilets in his office block, leaving just hand dryers. Within hours a protest movement began using toilet rolls instead of the dryers, sparking worries in the facilities and health and safety departments about shortages. For a week the situation was uncomfortable, but then the protestors got bored and switched to using the dryers. The moral of the story being that buy-in doesn’t have to a warm and fluffy affair and that people can have quite short memories.

While this form of shoving, manipulating and cajoling is more readily identifiable as a part of the day job, the ability to inspire is at the pinnacle of the persuasion ladder. This is exactly why Heather Poore, a youth volunteering project manager at behaviour change charity Global Action Plan (GAP), was presented with this year’s IEMA graduate award at the conference.

For the judges, Poore’s work with young people really stood out from the other candidates, because of her ability to take environmental messages and translate them into actions. Her passionate belief in sharing knowledge about climate change with individuals that might not otherwise have learned of it has really inspired the young people she has worked with to do their bit to make a difference.

I am sure that all environmentalists hope to do the same, but the pressures and strains of the day-to-day can sometimes sap our energy levels and knock our confidence. Which is why I suggest that every IEMA member get out of the office. Spend a day or an evening on a course, at a conference or an event that will give you the chance to meet other environmentalists, share your experiences and learn from others. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture can help to reinvigorate and revitalise, putting you in a much better position to inspire those people who are so crucial to you achieving what you want.


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