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Monday, October 2, 2023

Can we put climate change action at the heart of the workplace?

I am sure we are almost all agreed that climate change mitigation efforts are of huge importance. And that it would be reassuring to know that in every workplace someone was looking out for what could be done – wearing a shirt for the climate, in other words?

Beth Galit
Beth Galit

Around three billion people in the world work, and a good proportion work in organisations with more than 30 people. The workplace trisects people’s emissions profiles as workers, consumers, and commuters. The challenge, it seems to us, is how to engage them there.

For example, how do you get four people who drive solo to work to share one electric car, perhaps funded by the workplace and rechargeable on-site? Who makes the first move? Both may fear rejection because the other side of the industry is not interested or will not play ball.

Workplaces have their hands full with cost pressures, diversity issues, and so on; perhaps they feel it’s best not to throw climate change on top? Workplace members may not want to “stick their neck out” and would rather “keep their head down”, but it may gnaw away at them that profligate bad emissions practices continue where they work. Frankly, have you never had that thought yourself?

COP26 sadly signaled a divide between elites inside the tent and masses of protestors outside. Surely, in the shared tent of the workplace, more progress can be made.

But might it just take a matchmaker? Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary, and some far-sighted organisations already have workplace climate action and discussion groups, but a huge number of workplaces do not.

For those that do not, NZASAP has a possible solution for 2023: a uniformed volunteer force of workplace climate ambassadors. Come to us if you want us to “test the water” with your boss (we will write him no-names for you); come to us if you want peers or mentors to talk through the issues with; come to us for basic guidance on how to organise a workplace session.

The informal discussion reveals a prevailing sentiment that in a largely male-led workforce, female employees are more likely to come forward if a third-party advocate broaches the topic for them. And frankly, these initially more reticent ambassadors may actually prove more effective in the role. Furthermore, female empowerment in the service of climate change solutions is a sought-after but so far elusive Holy Grail in solution implementation.

Now, let’s look from the other end of the spectrum, from the organisation’s perspective. For now, ESG remains a relatively elite acronym, but it signals the pressure organisations are under. A workplace climate ambassador scheme ticks all three boxes: the scope for environmental wins (E); it empowers workers, which is good “social” (S); and it means listening to what the folks are saying, which is good “government” (G).

Our research shows the boss’s point is a real one. People are nervous about being “the climate nut” in the office, factory, college, etc. But we think bosses will be pleased if an approach is made to do this. Isn’t that right, bosses?

On the other side, many workplace members are rightly concerned about the scale of the climate challenge and frustrated that they seem to have no role, and they would welcome one if it could be safely established. And I am sure we have heard colleagues, how can I put this diplomatically, draw attention rather trenchantly. and often seeking a wry laugh, to the distinction between what bosses may be heard saying on the subject publicly and the day-to-day reality of their own establishments.

Put more charitably, the board may know and speak “the truth”. Staffers may know “the whole truth”. A scheme like this may reconcile them, and by them I mean both rhetoric and reality, and the whole organisation in ensuring “no stone unturned” in the quest for Net Zero asap.

This idea may ruffle feathers and require some courage on the part of would-be ambassadors, but isn’t this what “we” are all saying: be open to new ways; “business as usual” cannot continue?

By Beth Galit, Founding Mother of NZASAP, a climate solutions advocacy group, and the Launch Director of the group’s Workplace Climate Ambassador scheme, which was introduced on International Labour Day 2023 in West Africa

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