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Leadership Lesson with Lucy Piper, Director, WorkforClimate

What's your background and how did you end up joining Work for Climate?

For nearly a decade, I led the in-house Creative Department at an Australian travel company, focusing on producing all branded content including video, photography, and digital media. Committed to sustainability, the company was the largest B Corp in Australia, co-founded by a participant in Al Gore's Climate Reality leadership program.

However, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I looked at my personal commitment to climate action, thinking about future conversations with my teenage son questioning my efforts. In addition, Greta Thunberg’s 2019 speech to the UN, where she famously stated, "We will never forgive you", also made me reassess my responsibilities towards sustainability.

Around this time, I was introduced to an opportunity to lead Work for Climate by Brian Rollins, who had founded the organisation. The role aimed to promote sustainability practices within corporate settings. In this role, I found myself bridging corporate sustainability initiatives with grassroots activism, driven by a renewed sense of responsibility and a collective commitment to address the climate crisis.

How did the concept of Work for Climate evolve?

The concept of Work for Climate evolved from the potential of employees within organisations to drive meaningful climate action. This coincided with the rise of student strikes for climate action, prompting discussions with employees, particularly those who were the parents of the striking students. Work for Climate was conceptualised as a platform to empower these employees with the necessary information, tools, and resources to effect change within their workplaces. My role was to develop and lead this initiative.

Initially, our focus was on creating content such as playbooks and digital resources. However, we discovered that the cohort approach, where professionals were provided with playbooks and engaged in regular discussions over a 12-week period, was more impactful than solely providing resources. The community aspect played a crucial role, offering a mix of accountability, encouragement, and coaching, which empowered participants to take action within their organisations. This community of action-oriented professionals marked the transformation of Work for Climate into a dynamic platform driving real change within workplaces.

How do you engage employees within companies?

Engaging employees within companies is at the core of our strategy. We've developed a cohort program where we recruit employees and organise them around climate goals within their respective companies. While our Academy is presently based in Australia, we do accept global applicants, though coordinating time zones can be challenging. However, with plans to expand to Europe once I relocate to France, and with ongoing campaigns in the US, our reach continues to grow.

Our goal is to mobilise employees within some of the world's largest corporations to become agents of change. Companies rarely change in isolation; external pressures from regulators, insurers, campaigners, investors, suppliers, competitors, and notably, employees, play a pivotal role. By organising employees and adding pressure to businesses, we create faster corporate action.

As an NGO, while we charge for the courses we offer, the revenue generated is reinvested back into our broader funding pool. We're not reliant on this revenue for sustainability. Commercialisation isn't our focus; instead, we prioritise reaching the right people within the most critical companies.

What challenges do leaders in sustainability face?

The challenges are multifaceted and complex. One significant hurdle is identifying and nurturing individuals with the drive and commitment to effect real change within their organisations. While there are success stories, finding such individuals remains a daunting task.

Companies often approach us to run climate literacy training for their entire staff. However, we recognise that our programme is not suitable for everyone. We cater to individuals who are motivated to create meaningful change.

As individuals with motivation are rare, our ongoing challenge lies in identifying and cultivating potential leaders. This task involves not only behavioural economics but also addressing cultural differences and attitudes towards climate action. For instance, while the climate movement may be more prevalent and rational in France compared to Australia, individuals may face frustration when met with a lack of willingness to act on climate issues.

Navigating these challenges requires a collective effort of sharing experiences, engaging in dialogue, and finding solidarity with like-minded individuals. It's about living with the knowledge we possess and striving to effect positive change, even when faced with resistance or indifference. Ultimately, our goal is to empower individuals to embrace the truth of climate change, and live a life aligned with their values.

What qualities do leaders in sustainability need?

They need the courage to make a change, they must be fearless and fully committed to their cause and understand that their work is about driving meaningful change.

In a world where sustainability initiatives can often feel like an uphill battle, leaders must also possess the resilience to weather setbacks and continue to push forward. Alongside resilience comes tenacity, even when the path forward seems uncertain or daunting.

Yet, perhaps most crucially, sustainability leaders need hope. Not a passive hope, but an active, aggressive hope that serves as a driving force for action. It's this hopeful determination that propels sustainability leaders forward, inspiring them to overcome obstacles and create positive change for a better, healthier, and happier society.

What are the challenges employees face regarding sustainability in their day-to-day work?

At a fundamental level, challenges lie in the fact that sustainability is not inherently factored into business costs. Creating a business case for climate and sustainability requires an approach that encompasses both financial and moral obligations. Businesses need to look beyond short-sighted profitability which have long-term implications on sustainability.

Moving beyond this challenge, shifting organisations towards sustainability requires a change in current practices. This process demands considerable effort, where employees often find themselves working extra hours with little reward, and convincing others to join the cause is met with resistance.

Despite these obstacles, the key lies in leveraging the power of individual actions within thousands of companies worldwide. Each employee advocating for sustainability initiatives, whether it's proposing 100% renewable energy to procurement managers or challenging existing norms, creates a crack in the system. These cracks, when multiplied across countless organisations, have the potential to shift the broader landscape of supply and demand, redirecting resources towards renewable energy infrastructure and altering the financial incentives surrounding fossil fuel expansion.

Do you have any common advice or tips that you often see companies overlook when it comes to sustainability, but you know it's crucial for new employees to know?

When it comes to sustainability, companies often overlook the importance of going beyond surface-level initiatives. While actions like banning plastic straws or promoting the use of keep cups are valuable signals of commitment to sustainability, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Instead, it's crucial for employees to recognise where the company's largest impacts lie and how to effectively leverage meaningful change. One of the most impactful steps a company can take is transitioning to 100% renewable energy, thereby significantly reducing their carbon footprint and the transition to a low-carbon economy. Companies should also set emission reduction targets and develop strategies to achieve them.

Many companies overlook where their corporate cash is invested and how employee retirement funds are managed. By advocating for divestment from fossil fuels and deforestation, employees can redirect financial resources towards more sustainable investments that align with the company's environmental values. Employees can also use their influence to ensure the trade associations their company belongs to align with their sustainability goals. By actively participating in lobbying efforts and pushing for policies that support sustainability, employees can drive systemic change beyond the company's immediate operations.

How do you envision the field evolving over the next five to ten years, especially as public awareness of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) issues continues to grow?

Over the next five years, I anticipate an evolution in corporate sustainability, driven by a growing recognition of the pitfalls of greenwashing and the need for genuine, impactful action. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of many companies, there's a concerning trend of relying on carbon offsetting and other imperfect solutions to achieve carbon neutrality. This reliance risks lulling us into a false sense of progress while emissions continue to rise unabated.

In the face of these challenges, I hope to see a movement towards greater transparency and accountability within the corporate sector. It's essential to acknowledge the tension between business objectives and sustainability goals and to prioritise the latter, even if it means sacrificing short-term profitability or growth targets.

The next five years present an opportunity for the corporate sector to move beyond surface-level sustainability initiatives and embrace a more authentic and impactful approach to environmental stewardship. This shift requires courage, honesty, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, but it's essential if we're to truly address the pressing environmental challenges facing our planet.

In the face of climate change, every action counts. That’s Work for Climate’s true purpose. Together, we have the power to innovate and inspire change. Let's work towards preserving our planet for generations to come, and make a difference in building a greener, healthier world.

Posted on 23.05.2024

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