An environmentalist and an MBA team up to develop a network of sustainability champions.
As this series has documented, Sustainability Insurgents are professional insiders driven by a higher purpose. While loyally serving their employers, they also pursue a higher ideal: aligning their organizations with a global vision of a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. This article explores how two insurgents, working for dramatically different organizations, partnered to save the planet — and in doing so spread the sustainability insurgency to thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations.
The unlikely duo is Frances Edmonds, an environmental scientist, and Adrienne Lo, an MBA. They hail from the conservation non-profit WWF and the tech leader HP Canada. But, in a twist increasingly common to the insurgency, the environmentalist works for the business, and the MBA works for the non-profit.
What brought this odd couple together? A shared belief that saving the planet depends on engaging and rallying as many people as possible to action. Their target audience: Nascent Sustainability Insurgents, whom they call “champions,” in companies around the globe. Champions are employees who see opportunities for positive change, but aren’t tasked by their company’s official CSR function to act.
Their model of change is peer-to-peer engagement, which they see as the most effective way to support champions and encourage them to take actions that can foster new sustainable norms at work.
Edmonds and Lo knew from experience that champions operate on a volunteer basis, stepping up to the challenge largely because it makes their job more meaningful and personally fulfilling. This intrinsic motivation is vital because insurgents swim against the organizational current. They get told “no” often.
It’s not that the companies don’t want to improve their sustainability performance: No executive gets up in the morning and asks, “How can I destroy the planet today?” But, according to Lo, established corporate processes, systems, and policies are difficult to change — and often, no single person or department has the power to act alone. Corralling and convincing all the needed people requires unique skills and organizational knowledge that are not readily available, nor taught in traditional management programs.
This is where our duo steps in. They wanted a way to provide the know-how and tools champions need to advance the sustainability insurgency in their organizations. But more important, they knew that a supportive peer network of like-minded insurgents would empower champions and give them the courage to persist in the face of inevitable resistance.
The result of their vision is a web-enabled system launched by WWF Canada called Living Planet @ Work, a free, one-stop-shop that provides insurgents with the resources, inspiration, and support they need to become sustainability champions in their company. The website also works to overcome the dismal rate of charitable giving to environmental causes, which is less than 5% in Canada, by encouraging users to support important WWF campaigns like Arctic conservation (see the video).
Living Planet @ Work’s online tools include how-to guides for reducing the workplace environmental footprint and advice on engaging colleagues around sustainability. But beyond information, the site fosters an engaged, peer-to-peer network where members support each other in navigating the organizational obstacle course. As Frances puts it, “There is nothing more motivating than knowing that you’re not alone.”
Since Living Planet @ Work launched 5 years ago, more than 1,200 champions have joined. The website documents examples of insurgents making their offices more energy efficient, reducing the landfill waste, organizing e-waste drives, and more. While these tangible outcomes are important, it is the growing organizational capacity to act on sustainability that ultimately counts. With each successful initiative, champions demonstrate to themselves, their peers, and company executives how corporate social responsibility can have an impact on important managerial issues like employee engagement, operational efficiency, and corporate purpose.
Living Planet @ Work website captures the vision this way: “We know that meaningful change comes from within an organization, and the more help you can get to build support across teams and employees, the better.” This is where change begins, but the end game of these bottom-up victories must be an executive embrace of sustainability and a commitment to embedding corporate responsibility into every function of the organization. Luckily, with champions like these populating the company, executives will find an established network ready and willing to support a coherent and compelling sustainability strategy.