Why have environmental champions?
A couple of years ago, I had finished speaking at an event when a rather harried woman approached me in the coffee queue.
"I don’t know what to do!" she exclaimed "We’ve appointed environmental champions at all our sites, but I can’t get them to do their job properly."
"What do you mean?" I asked as we shuffled forwards towards the caffeine.
"They’re not meeting their targets." she said.
"Targets? When you say environmental champions, you mean...?"
“Volunteers from the shop floor.”
"They’re volunteers, with little authority..." she nodded, filling a cup "... and you’ve given them targets?"
"I’d take the targets away from the champions and give them to the site managers or whoever has the authority to actually deliver on them."
"Thank you!" she said, brightening up, and bustled off before I could ask to whom I should send the invoice.
While I have trained environmental champions for several clients, I have never proposed that anyone set up such a network in the first place. In fact I recently recommended to a major company I’m working with that they abandon theirs, which they did, because they were effectively trying to do the same thing as the lady above – deliver against formal goals using an informal structure. Instead we are working to embed sustainability targets into the mainstream reporting structure, as that is what the structure is for, and that is where change can actually be delivered.
But what is wrong with having environmental champions to help grease the wheels of change? My concern is that the voluntary nature of the role reinforces the all too prevalent attitude that sustainability and ‘green’ are wishy-washy nice-to-haves, rather than core organisational priorities. Setting up and maintaining such a network also takes a huge amount of time and effort, to stop it atrophying through frustration and disenchantment. Time and energy are precious and could often be put to more effective use elsewhere.
Fundamentally, one of the biggest internal barriers to delivering on sustainability is a misalignment between authority and responsibility. If you fix anything, fix that – and I’m afraid voluntary environmental champions are usually, unwittingly, a symptom of the problem rather than part of the solution.
What do you think about environmental champions? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.