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How could environmental training improve your business’ bottom line? Plus the future of green sustainable jobs

Quiz time: What’s a driver got in common with a lighting specialist in a clothing chain or an assembly line worker?

Answer: they all have the potential to help boost their company’s profits as a result of environmental training.

For the past 20 years, Auckland-based environmental trainer/speaker/writer Clare Feeney has been helping companies improve their environmental management. As she says, every industry stands to benefit, from IT and banking to farming and tourism.

(We’re also giving away a copy of her book, How to Change the World: A Practical Guide to Successful Environmental Training Programs – details at the bottom.)

What is environmental training anyway? Defining the term 

Feeney says the words ‘training’, ‘learning’, awareness’ and ‘education’ are often used interchangeably. Here’s her take:

“Training is the acquisition of work-related knowledge, skills and practices that will improve a specified aspect of on-the-job performance in measurable ways, ideally as defined in a clear statement of performance standards and/or outcomes.

“My focus is on environmental performance in the workplace. Because this is an area that is subject to environmental law, including fines and other penalties, even imprisonment, a core principle is that of fairness: people need to know exactly what is expected of them.”

She says there needs to be a measurable performance standard or outcomes specified by an appropriate authority such as an environmental regulator, industry or professional association or similar body. These must be transparently and consistently assessed and there must be support in the workplace.

It’s no use sending staff to training workshops where they are not provided with the encouragement, time, budget and resources they need to put what they have learned to good effect.”

Some sectors need formal environmental training more than others. Dairy farmers, manufacturers and companies involved in civil and building construction may be more driven by risk, she says. Others will see opportunities for saving money, increasing profits and encouraging innovations that keep them ahead of their competitors. 

Making the most of green job opportunities

How can we train up our workforce to be more environmentally and sustainably savvy? Feeney’s answer is to build on existing partnerships all round the country. Together, she says business, government, iwi, environmental and community bodies can come together to work out what issues and opportunities face each sector, what performance standards are needed, how best to deliver training and how to measure the environmental difference we make.

“We talk about the ‘knowledge economy’ but governments struggle to translate that into practical realities,” she says.

People who develop strong environmental skills can rise to positions of seniority they’d never have dreamed of.

“I’ve seen environmental training become a vehicle for literacy and numeracy training, as people learn how to follow detailed designs, read meters and log their environmental tasks. Building skills like these generates tremendous increases in staff loyalty and engagement, productivity and of course, profitability for the companies concerned.”

Environmental pressures and opportunities are a brilliant driver of innovation, she says.

“Consider the Rena disaster – I grew up on the beach at Mt Maunganui where it happened, and despite the horror, I see so much potential for innovative ideas for governance, technology and community development and resilience out of it! Many ports ban vessels that use the bunker oil that powered the Rena – what marketing benefits would the Bay of Plenty reap if the port at Tauranga became the world’s first to ban fossil-fueled ships? The America’s Cup was a win:win victory for New Zealand’s boat-building technology, so why don’t we get into these sophisticated aspects of solar shipping? Solar ships have been around for ages and look gorgeous as well as being cheaper and more sustainable than the conventional fleet and its hazardous fuel.

“And as for community development, coastal communities already play an active kaitiaki and guardianship role – they’re already a skilled and committed resource. With the right kind of support, their capacity could be further built up in many areas of disaster response and positive restoration.”

Environmental training heroes in New Zealand

Feeney says environmental training is delivered in three main ways: through government agencies, industry and professional associations, and individual businesses.

“In terms of government agencies, the Auckland Regional Council led the way in New Zealand for environmental training, which focused on reducing the uncontrolled runoff of soil from big earthworks sites – subdivisions, motorways and the like,” she says.

“Several of the other councils around New Zealand where development is an issue also run similar erosion and sediment control training programs, and the SCIRT team in Christchurch (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) are doing a great job of integrating environmental training into the rebuild work they are doing there.

“In terms of sector organisations, the Waste Management Institute and Water New Zealand have a lot of excellent training initiatives to reduce waste, increase recycling and promote good management of water supply, stormwater and wastewater systems.

“In terms of private companies, it’s a bit harder to tell who’s doing what, as lots of companies just do it and don’t necessarily broadcast what they are doing … One outstanding example, though, is HEB Construction, whose four-year environmental training went from corporate boardroom to bulldozer blade, and really turned the company round. In fact their turnover tripled over that time and much of the reason was the huge buy-in from all of the staff – that level of engagement is much sought after in the corporate world but very hard to get.”

Another example Feeney cites is Wellington’s Formway Design.

“It found it could spur more creative thinking by becoming more sustainable. As part of this, staff had to monitor resource use and waste generation – and the company realised it had to roll out a literacy and numeracy training programme to help them do this. Result: staff who were so grateful for support with reading and writing in English were not only more efficient and productive, but became even more loyal and dedicated to the company, with record levels of staff retention and engagement – a known cost-saver to firms. This is in addition to the cost-savings made from reducing solid and liquid waste and the consumption of materials, energy and water,” she says.

“Of course there are loads of other organisations out there that are making a huge difference to their environmental performance but who don’t need to use training as a significant tool – e.g. the work of Lesley Stone at the University of Auckland, Russell Baillie at Unitec and others like them around New Zealand tertiary institutions and businesses.”

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” standard training package: the environmental skills needed for sustainable forestry are very different from those needed in a manufacturing plant or an office environment.

The future of green jobs

Feeney foresees new jobs in sustainability cropping up in the next few years – the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program estimate that by 2032, green jobs could employ 15-60 million people worldwide.

The full embedding of sustainability into existing jobs is certainly an ideal to go for! However, I think there will be quite a long transition (maybe a generation – less, if/when we really run into major ecological problems) to getting there. Even then we will still probably need our environment and sustainability specialists to keep ahead of the cutting edge and pass on the necessary information and new practices to board and the rest of the staff.

In the meantime, I see more organisations in both the public and private sectors engaging environment and sustainability managers. Very often these people are effectively change managers, so their skills of partnership and persuasion may need to be more important than their technical skills. Sometimes these managers come from a sustainability background and have to learn how to apply it to the particular business they work for. Other times they are people who come up through their workplace and develop sustainability expertise by leveraging off their professional skills and industry knowledge.”

Feeney also envisions more agencies joining the likes of EECA, Environmental Choice, CarboNZero and others in this space.

“Businesses like ecoPortal are also actively working to help companies. ecoPortal has successfully combined an innovative online delivery system to help companies meet international environmental standards,” she says.

We will also see more and more jobs created by companies specifically addressing environmental issues – for example organisations like Wanaka WasteBusters and Xtreme Waste have created jobs that successfully tackle environmental problems. The clean-up of the Whaingaroa Harbour, by Raglan, has several spinoff environmental initiatives including a nursery and planting service that provide local jobs.”

WIN! We have one copy of Feeney’s book to give away. To be in to win, leave a comment and tell us why you need it – what’s your organisation hoping to achieve? Open to NZ residents only, closes Febuary 28.
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