Workplaces, Workforces & Climate Change
Rising, warming oceans. Heat domes. Atmospheric rivers. Hotter, drier growing seasons. Signs of ecological change surround us. News stories inform us of people’s high levels of ecological anxiety, or new discoveries of how our actions are damaging the world we live in.
While many individuals are cultivating habits to reduce their ecological footprint, businesses and other organizations need to join the effort to produce significant results, with the added benefit that a commitment to sustainable workplaces can be carried home to employees’ individual lives as well.
An Uneasy State of Mind
Eco-anxiety is very much a frequent organic conversation among employees at Tofino’s Ocean Outfitters, according to Diondra Adams, Operations Manager. “We are within that generation where we’ve seen a lot of what has happened. We find that our employees have a deep love and respect for the environment, and they do worry about the future. When they see noise pollution affecting humpback whales and old growth forests being logged, it can be overwhelming at times. But I’m hopeful that if people see change being done, then they’ll be more will be willing to change themselves, too.”
“Working on preservation helps alleviate eco-anxiety,” she adds. “We have one employee who really felt the disconnect and was suffering from anxiety because of when he worked for a large company that didn’t even recycle. Now he feels good about coming into work and about what we do; it motivates him.”
“Two and a half years of pandemic layered on top of everything hasn’t helped — there’s a heightened level of anxiety over everything. Inflation, affordability, climate change — how do you separate one from another?” says Karen Tam Wu, a climate action advocate and policy advisor with a history of working for climate action.
Why It Matters
“The future of our planet does depend on us coming together to solve this crisis,” Tam Wu says. “Look at last year in B.C. — heat domes and atmospheric rivers — most of us had never heard those terms before, but they wreaked havoc on our communities and our economy. We need to tackle this for our physical and economic wellbeing.”
Heather Stickle, Director, People and Culture, at Pela Canada in Kelowna, says that as a business devoted to making sustainable products, such as countertop composters and compostable cellphone cases, “We’re a mission with a company, not the other way around. Our reason for being is trying to reduce plastic in the world and create a waste-free future.”
Sustainability is “everything for us,” Diondra Adams says. “We’ve been a social enterprise since 2015, committed to preserving Clayoquot Sound. Our profits go back into our operations and to social projects within Clayoquot Sounds. We work through several preservation organizations like the Redd Fish Restoration Society, the Raincoast Education Society, marine research, and more.
“We offer eco-tours, whale watching, bear-watching, kayaking, tours through old-growth rainforest, and we’re proud allies with a couple of different First Nations in the area and support their projects. We recognize the effects of climate change and how negative human interactions have affected our ecosystem: things like open-net aquaculture and old-growth logging, how declining wild salmon stocks affect the whales, too. It’s a delicate balance that requires our attention.”
“There is so much opportunity to make an impact on really complicated problems that we cannot wait for governments to solve. The impetus is on business to play a bigger role,” Stickle says.
“Part of the reason we became a B-Corp is that we believe that business should be a force for good,” she adds. A B-Corporation has been certified to be sustainable according to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. “The goal is really about trying to make sure that all the pieces around ESG are standardized, and that there’s a way to connect these incredible companies that are doing so much good in the world.
Climate and the Bottom Line
Sometimes it’s easier to convince leadership of change if they can see a business benefit to it.
“Tourism is a key economic driver in many communities, and it relies on the environment,” Adams points out. On a more individual level, “there are many operators in this industry, and we stand out. People are becoming much more conscious consumers. They see more value in choosing our organization over another operator; they want to feel good about where their money is going to.”
“I don’t think you’re going to survive as a business long-term if you don’t have that (environmental) lens,” Stickle adds. “Consumers vote with dollars, and the appetite for making better decisions is bigger now than it’s ever been.”
In addition, “most traditional lenders and many capitalist venture lenders require a solid ESG plan. The benefit, obviously, is that we all hope to leave the world a better place. Having values around making environmental priorities your goal is critical to business success.”
“For government and the private sector, it’s a way to attract new investment and new talent,” Tam Wu says. “Signalling their intentions early and often about where the B.C. economy is headed can signal to investors in clean technologies and renewable energy and other emerging sectors that this is a good place to set up shop. Canada and B.C. were built on resource extraction, and there’s a fear that a move to clean fuels will be the death of many industries. That’s why it’s important to send this message to these other types of industries, so we can build and maintain a resilient and robust economy.”
Another economic benefit is being more attractive to potential employees at a time when getting good people can be a challenge.
Stickle says their environmental focus “is a huge attractant. We’re a very diverse business that requires production, e-commerce, product development, and lots of tech support. It’s great for all of these specialized talents to have an outlet to go to, where they can do what they’re good at, in service to a greater good.”
“We bring on team members whose own values align with the organization’s values, who are passionate about the environment,” Adams says. “It’s definitely a recruiting advantage; people are eager to work with us because they’re excited when they see what we do, and they want to be a part of that.”
Leading the Way
Many organizations espouse environmental responsibility in their mission or values, but the difference is in their actions, from small organizations to large government agencies.
Tam Wu spends much of her time discussing “ways in which governments can reduce emissions from all parts of our economy. In every aspect — transportation, heating buildings, freight transportation, industry — we work on how to move from using fossil fuels to renewable resources to do all those things.”
Governments at every level need to commit to more renewable resources, such as wind and solar energy, or changing organic waste into bio-gas, she says. “Hydroelectricity is renewable, but we need to figure out how we’re going to have enough of it if we convert from fossil fuels to electricity. We need to be more efficient in how we use energy, more energy-wise.”
Governments can encourage and model changes in behaviour, she adds. “In B.C. right now, we have a vision for how to reduce our carbon footprint by 40 per cent by 2030; the national goal is 45 per cent by 2030. Some people in the world say Canada should cut by 60 per cent, because we have a big carbon footprint.”
“Canada causes two per cent of the world’s emissions. We’re one of the G-7 countries and we’ve demonstrated leadership in other areas, so for us to demonstrate how we can move forward to a clean economy could really be a motivator and example for other jurisdictions.
“B.C. is one of the few governments that has put forward a plan to reduce emissions,” she continues. “It has to be an all-hands-on-deck approach in the end. For example, Quebec has partnered with a hydro provider to develop one of biggest green hydrogen projects in North America. It’s a promising fuel of the future. If BC and Quebec are doing amazing things, we can collectively show the country it’s doable.”
“In order for us to remain competitive in a global marketplace, we need to figure out how to set ourselves up for the future — to future-proof our economy.”
What Your Organization Can Do
“Set a few goals to work toward in your first year, then expand in the second year,” Adams says. “For example, in the first three months, do a waste audit. Then set a reduction goal; maybe six months in, you’re going to go digital as much as possible.”
At Ocean Outfitters, they try to eliminate as many single-use items as possible, reduce packaging, source sustainable and local products, and set environmental procedures for vessel operations and wildlife interaction. “We have a microplastic catchment for our laundry. We turn off the lights. We have an eco-coffee bar that doesn’t offer takeout containers. We’re always looking for how we can make something more sustainable.”
“I’ve seen a lot of companies encourage employees to use transit, or set their own goals of reducing carbon emissions, and offsetting the emissions they have,” Tam Wu says.
“Asking your employees about what they’d like the organization to do is a good place to start,” she adds. “The greatest success or buy-in comes from engaging with staff and collectively building a vision for what they’d like to see happen.” She’s seen employee-led Green Teams implement grassroots initiatives that they want to spread throughout the organization.
“Leadership modelling is also really important. Employees are inspired by employers who look at themselves and ask what they can do to be more energy-efficient, climate friendly, etc.”
“First, realize it’s worth it, worth all the work it takes to get there,” Stickle says. “Second, don’t recreate the wheel — there are lots of companies doing this well. Third, don’t wait. Start small; you can’t swallow the ocean, so take a little sip at a time. Progress feeds perfection every day.
“Education is foundational as well. A great low-cost place to start is to sit down to watch a show or movie to make people ask questions. Sometimes, it just takes asking a question to get people talking about their ideas.”
“Focus on what we can best do,” she adds. “Other people are going to solve other things, but we don’t have time, energy, or focus to do all the things.”
“Notice the visible nudges when you walk into your space — having a compost bin in your kitchen, getting everyone to scrape their reusable plates, eliminating plastic cups, buying coffee beans in bulk, finding local sources and supporting your community.
“We’re constantly re-thinking all the things we do. Stop giving away swag at job fairs or trade shows; most of it ends up in a landfill. Divert that money and applicants at that event could vote for which charity it would support.”
Individual Actions Count
“We’re very big on volunteerism,” Adams says. “We actively encourage our team members to get out and be part of projects in the community, and we compensate them for some of their volunteer hours. We sit down with our partner organizations to talk about their projects and how our team members could help them as volunteers. We set up info sessions for team members to educate and engage them with the projects we support. They then engage more with our guests about their commitments, and it’s a genuine interaction that has the potential to have lasting effect.
“When you get people involved within the community in projects where they see real, measurable environmental change, it helps with that paradigm shift.”
“I’m currently training and developing an individual for the role of Volunteer Ambassador to take over connecting our team members with volunteer opportunities, and who will also represent the organization at these opportunities. That individual will be compensated fully for their volunteer hours.”
Adams adds, “At the HR level, we measure people on how they’ve lived our values. It’s part of our review process and how we do bonuses — how they get to work, whether or not they’re involved in volunteer activities, etc.”
“Can you reduce how much paper you use?” Stickle asks. “We have one desktop printer for about 75 people in our office. Shift to going paperless, using cloud-based storage instead of physical files, scanning or taking photos instead of printing things out. The more you do it, the more opportunities you recognize for how to become more sustainable in the everyday little things we do.
“It’s a journey and everyone’s at a different stage, but when you’re in an environment where people talk about things like laundry strips instead of plastic jugs, people definitely start making different decisions. It become habitual and shows up in the most innocuous ways, like getting a glass of water rather than iced tea in a bottle. It makes you pause and think, ‘How can I do better?’ Just keep trying to do better than you did the day before.”
Set measurable goals so you can recognize your success. “We measure our greenhouse emissions each year and work to reduce them,” Adams says. “We’ve offset 120% of our emissions with real, additional and permanent reductions.”
“In 2020 alone, Pela sold more than a million plastic-free products. We’ve eliminated more than 300,000 lbs. of plastic from ever being produced,” Stickle says. “We want to talk about it in terms that give people something they can visualize. Since our inception 11 years ago, customers have purchased 2.2 million Pela cases and accessories, which prevented 760,000 lbs of plastic waste, equivalent to 63 million plastic bags.”
“Quantitatively, you can measure your emissions, the number of kilometres travelled by car, the number of flights taken across an organization,” Karen Tam Wu adds. “Also, monitor the feedback you get from employees about implementing a climate action approach. What does it do to company morale and engagement?”
Climate action becomes a mindset that can save the planet. “When you’re surrounded by optimists, you see the optimistic options,” Stickle says. “Choices become more about ‘how is this improving something?’ Part of the culture is around courage, doing new things even when you’re afraid. There’s a positive impact on mental health and happiness, too.
“Frame all the decisions you make around, ‘Is this going to exist forever, can I re-use it or recycle it?’ Little shifts in thinking can have a big impact.”
Nancy Painter is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C. and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.
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