Sustainability Engagement: Bottom up or top down?
In almost every sustainability strategy project I do, I find that the default client assumption is engagement is something that is done with front line staff. But with all due respect, a supermarket cashier has no authority to change what is stocked on the shelves, and I’ve never met a forklift truck driver who has the authority (or budget) to install a solar array on the roof of the factory. People can only change what is within their sphere of influence, so if we want to make step reductions in carbon footprint, we have to target those whose with the authority to do so. So I always end up arguing for engagement for decision-makers as a first priority.
Don’t get me wrong, front-line engagement is important, but is predominantly about ensuring that things are done right: waste materials are segregated for recycling, equipment is switched off properly, chemicals are disposed of correctly, which are important but can only lead to incremental improvements. My best analogy is somewhat inappropriate for the topic matter: if Sustainability is an internal combustion engine, front-line engagement is the oil, decision-maker engagement is the fuel – you need both for the engine to run, but a lot more fuel than oil is required.
I know this flies in the face of the standard singing-kumbaya-round-the-campfire approach to engagement, but if you need to get something done, and fast, then some 80:20 thinking is required – put 80% of your effort into the 20% of actions that make the real difference. And that means working out who has the authority to make change happen and engaging with them.