Australia’s unfolding bushfire crisis is without question this country’s climate wakeup call. If not now – in the face of such widespread loss and devastation, and with no end in sight – when? writes Hilke Fitzsimons, General Manager, ZEISS Australia/New Zealand.
Across social media, in cities and in burned-out communities, Australians are pleading with governments and the business sector to act now to rapidly reduce carbon emissions.
Yet the passion and urgency expressed by the public – as in September when 300,000 Australian workers joined forces with students at climate change rallies around the country in one of the largest protest events in our history – continues to be met, at worst, with persistent denial, and at best, with a snail’s pace approach to climate action buoyed by an accounting loophole to appease Paris Agreement targets.
The latest Climate Change Performance Index placed Australia at number 57 out of 57 countries for its response to climate action. This is despite polling by the Australia Institute suggesting around two-thirds of Australians believe we are facing a climate emergency and want action now – a poll taken before the worst of the bushfire crisis unfolded.
With the Federal Government intent on treating the climate debate quite literally as a passing firestorm, it is heartening to remember that change is possible. It’s possible in every home, and indeed every workplace.
Organisations are a key contributor to environmental degradation. Businesses, large and small, have a powerful role to play in the transition to lower carbon economies. This is an opportunity. We don’t need to wait for government to provide a framework; we can each play a role in shifting the dial, however small, and in fact companies only stand to gain by responding to employee and community opinion.
Put employees in the driver’s seat
Connecting a company’s daily work goals and processes to a meaningful purpose is now widely accepted as best practice across the corporate world. Purpose-driven work is increasingly correlated with professional fulfillment, and, in world where retention and loyalty are becoming harder to attain, this has a direct bottom line impact. When a team is disconnected to the company’s values, culture suffers, and so does the company.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, it is in the best interest of an organisation to address an issue that employees care deeply about, and to bring employees along for the journey.
At ZEISS, a global organisation of 30,000 people, sustainability is encouraged by all leaders, but addressed at a local level. What works in Germany or Brazil won’t necessarily apply in Australia – the home of our Vision Care business where the production requirements and workforce is very different to other regions. We create a localised plan to reduce our carbon footprint and minimise waste.
However, we also take ‘local’ management a step further and put employees directly in the driver’s seat of change. Rather than absentee owners, external consultants, or even company leaders, they are by far the best environmental stewards. They know their roles, their colleagues, their equipment and processes better than anyone, and are very well placed to identify ways to reduce environmental impact. While expert advisers will have an important role to play in large scale sustainability transformations, employees must nevertheless be involved and own the process. A 2019 study of 682 Australian organisations found that employee participation influences organisations’ behaviours to reduce carbon emissions, and that allowing employees to contribute to the design of emissions reduction opportunities in the workplace results in better success.
In 2018, ZEISS Australia/New Zealand created an internal working group made up of every business unit including R&D, production, managers and finance. The group meets regularly and works together to suggest sustainability ideas and cost them out. They then take these ideas to decision-makers. In barely 18 months, the group’s work resulted in the elimination of production processes that require water-saving 200,000L; ZEISS becoming a zero landfill site; recycling of all batteries; lenses being shipped in 85 percent recycled cardboard; the elimination of plastic from all packaging; removal of wet edging in labs; and formaldehyde free and alcohol free cleaning of products. These measures were implemented within existing budgets and have not negatively impacted outputs in any way – quite the opposite.
The group is now looking into ways we can support and subsidise getting staff to and from work without having to drive their car – including electric vehicles.
The reason employee-owned sustainability has been so impactful for us, is that it brings a sense of morality into the workplace. Environmental advocates generally make the “business case” for sustainability – of which there are many – but research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that such steps resulted in commercial benefits for only 37 percent of firms. The initiatives that succeed are embedded in the company culture. As examined in the book Frugal Value, true sustainability cannot be driven purely by commercial interests. It requires moral decision-making. There must be a sense of ownership and an emotional connection to the goal.
Let’s ensure the silver lining of the bushfire crisis is that public passion results in action within all Australian businesses. We need an economy that lives within planetary boundaries. To achieve this, individual companies must be prepared to act, and to take their employees on this journey.