Sustainability revolution

Sustainability revolution
Published: 
May 2012

Recent research emerging from the UQ Business School shows that companies large and small are finding innovative and unique responses to the challenges and broader issues of sustainability and climate change.

Companies that look for ways to link issues and successful initiatives are able to find innovative solutions with more cooperation across the organisation.

While much of the debate on climate change concentrates on the negative impacts of adaptation on economies, communities and the environment, and the role that governments should play in the process, recent research emerging from the UQ Business School shows that companies large and small are finding innovative and unique responses to the challenges and broader issues of sustainability and climate change.

These studies are finding that managers can obtain significant rewards for an organisation – through improved value, increased innovation and engagement of staff as a result of developing a small wins approach to sustainability change.

A series of studies and organisational implementation projects undertaken by Professor Andrew Griffiths of UQ Business School and Dr Nardia Haigh of the University of Massachusetts Boston, found that proactive companies engaged with addressing sustainability issues have built their change programs on developing and integrating patterns of ‘small wins’.

Colleen Geyer is the Director of Mission at UnitingCare Queensland. With over 15,000 staff in more than 400 geographic locations across the State, UnitingCare Queensland is one of Australia’s largest non-profit health and community service providers. Change in organisations on this scale, must be managed with care, but when they are successfully achieved, the impact can be significant. “When we began to think organisationally about decreasing our carbon footprint and becoming more efficient, it seemed like a huge task, particularly when we wanted to bring everyone with us. So we started with some small, discrete projects that could be achieved quickly. This meant we had the credibility for a more strategic integration of sustainable business.”

The small wins approach has its beginnings in redefining seemingly intractable social problems into achievable steps so they are manageable. A small project is, after all, easier to sell to the business. It is simpler to define, communicate and measure. It also requires less risk and fewer people to be involved.

In implementation projects, in organisations in diverse sectors such as engineering and construction firm Abigroup and patient care suppliers Blue Care, Griffiths and Haigh found that small wins became an uncontroversial way of engaging longer-term sustainability-led transformations.
“Our data resists assertions that one small win may be unimportant,” explains Andrew Griffiths. “A series of small wins reveals a pattern that may attract others and deter opponents. A single small win can demonstrate that it is necessary to search for linking issues and to link small wins together, otherwise they will remain fragile, and vulnerable to becoming small flops. This can lead to a significant overall loss.” Andrew Griffiths believes that once found, linking issues allow innovation project teams to tackle more difficult practises with a greater degree of cooperation from organisational members.

What linking issues are will vary between organisations. In a meat processing facility, the linking issue was addressing concerns over occupational health and safety injuries, while in another, driver safety and awareness was a linking issue that resulted in a reduction in fuel consumption and more effective driving, which combined to contribute to a lowering of the organisation’s carbon footprint.

“Specifically, when it comes to managing climate change in organisations and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our study found that small teams working firstly on energy efficiency projects, developed skills and capabilities that could be transferred to larger projects such as fleet management, facilities design and the development of carbon accounting systems. Wins in these areas were then transferred to issues of supply chain management and then into broader strategic concerns.”
Griffiths and Haigh found that companies were developing and integrating patterns of ‘small wins’ as a way to redefine seemingly intractable problems, to become manageable.
“Companies that look for ways to link issues and successful initiatives are able to find innovative solutions with more cooperation across the organisation.”

“Companies found the small wins strategy enabled them to build the skills and capabilities of employees whilst addressing their personal concerns about sustainability issues.
“We believe that we are witnessing the emergence of a quiet revolution in how companies approach the issue of sustainability,” says Professor Griffiths. “It is apparent that businesses, globally, that have developed proactive strategies on climate change and broader sustainability issues are reaping significant benefits through the creation of innovative products and services, reducing their risk portfolios and enhancing the capabilities and resilience of their employees.”