Making sustainable practices work

Kate Kearins

03 Nov 2022

Professor Kate Kearins

Devastating floods, hotter summers than ever before in living memory, nationally and abroad, the news headlines lay bare the unprecedented impacts of climate change.

There’s no longer any doubt that much of the blame lies with the human and industrial activities of the last couple of centuries. We know unequivocally that burning fossil fuels produces heat-trapping gases. A major new international report last year found the highest ever-recorded levels of greenhouse gases.

We are being urged to make collective, concerted, and conscious changes to how we live and work to be better stewards of our earth.

And yet, with borders reopening, more people are back on planes. Like our motorways, our skies are again busy. Alternative energies and biofuels are being developed but do not yet offer a practical solution for low-emissions travel.

That means a trans-Tasman flight to attend a three-hour work meeting in Melbourne no longer seems justifiable (nor does that weekend shopping spree in Sydney). Indeed, many organisations are heeding the expert advice and encouraging, or even mandating, employees to travel less (less often and less far) in the name of work.

Is in-person always better?

Arguably, a key reason for business travel is similar to the reason for much personal travel: relationships.

We want to meet, talk, and work with three-dimensional, heart-beating human beings – in person.

Evidence shows that Zoom fatigue is real, and that to many real-life communication is invaluable in building meaningful connections with colleagues and collaborators.

Both camps – pro- and anti-work travel – have valid reasons for their positions. The playbook is still being written – and, of course, it varies from organisation to organisation.

But there are a few guidelines that may serve as valuable touchstones when considering (or making) work-related travel requests:

  • Do I really need to make the trip in the first place?
  • Could a team in the foreign location do the same work without me there in person?
  • Can we achieve what is required with a hybrid (in-person and remote) approach?
  • If travel is necessary, could we do fewer trips, stay longer, and accomplish more on a single trip?
  • Can one person attend in person, rather than the entire team?
  • Could this be seen as a junket?

Offer carrots, not sticks

Resistance to this approach is part of our wider existential crisis. Simply put, many of us had become disconnected from some of the more egregious effects of our activities. Just as important as disincentivising unsustainable travel are moves to incentivise sustainable modes of transport and meaningful communication with far-flung colleagues.

The ‘carrots’ of sustainable business practices include organisation-wide commitments to enable flexible working, encourage public and/or shared transport where practical, and make active commuting easy and convenient upon arrival at the workplace. 
Promoting EVs and providing at-work charging facilities, along with secure lockups for bikes and scooters (electric or acoustic) are fast becoming an expectation of, not an exception to, what a company provides.

Given road transport and freight are also major carbon contributors (and costs), it also makes sense to improve the logistics of our workplaces and use local supplies whenever possible.

Mummy, is it chicken or fish?

At work and at home, we need to have more honest conversations with ourselves about our role in a much bigger system. We need to make more fundamental connections with where our food comes from and where our rubbish goes. I’ll put my guilty hand up in mentioning a time when my young daughter asked whether the protein on her plate was chicken or fish – as both came in a box labelled “crumbed”.

The challenge of decarbonising is one that requires concerted action – from the collective top tier through government policy and regulatory change, to organisations rethinking and redesigning ways of working, through to changing our personal habits.

Businesses have an important role to play. Like the individuals employed by them, our workplaces must prepare themselves for a less bad stuff, more good stuff approach – through policies and practices – while safeguarding the value of vital human connections.

It’s no small task, and it requires incremental and radical changes. The planet and future generations depend on them.

This article first appeared in NZ Management magazine

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