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Sustainability talks

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Effective communication on environmental values, actions and performance has become essential for most organisations. Increased concern and interest from staff and the public continue to set the agenda.


Environmental communication is one of the crucial issues to be dealt with by any organisation, with or without an environmental management system (EMS) in place.

Regardless of your company’s size and number of employees, good communication is essential to all aspects of the business, including fostering a positive culture in the business so that environmental management is seen as a core business process, just like health and safety is.

Environmental professionals have an image problem, derived mainly from the media influence in portraying the subject as only one of civil protest. So, the first hurdle for many environmental, health and safety (EHS) professionals is communicating that environmental management is a business management tool, saves money and increases efficiency. In those businesses that excel in implementing environmental improvement programmes, good communication has been at the heart of their success. Put simply; in any plan to improve environmental performance, communication plays a pivotal role.

To start with, there are some actions that could be better communicated, such as:

  • An initiative of the organisation itself; for example, a press release, a sustainability report, an open house for neighbours, a meeting with suppliers and customers on the environmental aspects of a new product
  • Discussions with interested parties, especially with target groups, a proposed action of the organisation, such as the expansion of an existing facility or the introduction of a new product or service
  • Environmental risk management tools
  • A request for information by employees or investors, a government agency, a community group, a customer or supplier, or any other interested party
  • A regulatory requirement
  • A response to complaints from interested parties
  • The increasing importance of addressing global environmental issues.

The single biggest problem in communication is often the illusion that it has already taken place. This quote from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is very applicable to environmental management. There are countless examples where poor communication of the environmental management message has led to failure of initiatives, low morale, negativity and disengaged staff.

Environmental messages should be communicated in a way that moves people to action. Photograph: iStock/AfricaImages

From a purely business perspective, the communication about environmental management, just like health and safety, requires the knowledge transfer of policies, procedures, training, general ideas, thoughts or even feelings by the sender to the receiver via a mix of verbal or non-verbal means. This transfer gains increased significance in environmental management communication since the person responsible for it must work with the staff to achieve any operational or managerial performance objectives.

It is also necessary for people to express themselves. Improving communication involves more than just disseminating the message properly so that it’s heard – though that alone can be a challenge. It also means ensuring that the message resonates with and is understood in a way that it will move people to action and embrace environmental initiatives and programmes.

So, the EHS managers must communicate in a simple, direct and precise manner, regardless of the method of communication. For those organisations that have implemented ISO 14001, there has always been a clause in the standard to deal with the communication aspect of implementing an effective system.

Communication has been much enhanced in the ISO 14001:2015 and is now a similar key requirement of ISO 45001:2018. In both standards, communication is inextricably linked to understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties. This means identifying all stakeholders and determining what environmental communication is required, to whom, when and how it is delivered. In summary, it is necessary to have a communications plan.

Messages should move people to action. Poster is from the British Safety Council poster store at www.britsafe.org/publications/posters/

A good communications plan must have clear target groups. For example, during a recent Five Star environmental audit, it was found that the 500 staff members in the office and administration function of a company wanted to reduce the use of printer paper and use a more recycled content paper, but initial efforts had failed.

Why? because the EHS manager did not understand the need to target the communication to all interested parties in a detailed manner. In this case, those responsible for the purchasing of paper, IT staff, the office manager, the marketing team, the engineering department, offsite sales and cleaning staff, and senior management had not been consulted or communicated to.

In practice, it was necessary to have different approaches to get the message across. Moreover, it is not uncommon to identify conflicting interests among different target groups, as happened in this case. The ‘please think again about printing’ poster that was placed by the photocopier/printer was always doomed to fail.

The environmental communication activity needs to address and respond to different and often conflicting demands from target groups, so it needs to identify those who are the most influential and may negatively or positively impact the outcomes of a programme.

The organisation should seek to understand the expectations and perceptions of target groups with respect to the organisation’s environmental performance. At its simplest, direct dialogue between a target group and the organisation may generate the feedback required.

So, taking a new approach, the EHS manager worked with different groups and came up with a structured environmental communication plan. With advice from the British Safety Council environmental consultant, the manager was directed to use ISO 14063:2006, which gives guidance to any organisation on general principles, policy, strategy and activities relating to both internal and external environmental communication.

This guidance is based on solid, proven and well-established approaches for communication as a business tool generally, but adapted to the specific conditions that exist in environmental communication. It is applicable to all organisations regardless of their size, type, location, structure, activities, products and services, and whether they have an environmental management system in place or not. Moreover, the principles behind this standard can also be used for health and safety communication and has direct relevance to the communication clauses in ISO 45001:2018.

At the heart of good environmental communication is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of various types of verbal, written and visual methods you can use to convey the environmental message as it applies to your organisation, because each organisation is clearly different in its environmental culture, size and operations. Moreover, different departments within an organisation may respond to different communication methods. It is detailing the range of communication methods that will form your environmental communication strategy.

So, going back to our example above, the objective to reduce paper use was first set with a target of 10 per cent reduction compared to the previous year’s use, normalised against staff numbers. A detailed communication plan was developed for each target group based on a SWOT analysis for each communication type. At every single stage, every target group was asked to be involved and provide feedback and also in developing a range of managerial, technical and operational programmes to help achieve the target. The eventual outcome was a 34% drop in paper use.

This year, they have targeted another 20 per cent and have used the same methodology for energy reduction initiatives in the offices too.

So, good communication involves some planning, and by using the methods and guidance set out in ISO 14064:2006 (Greenhouse gases, quantification and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and removals) organisations can, and do, have successful environmental improvement programmes.

This example from reducing office paper use can be applied right through to energy, waste and water minimisation campaigns at every scale. So, next time you want to save some energy, water or even a bit of paper, remember that every little counts.

ISO 14000 family.Environmental management at: iso.org/iso-14001-environmental-management.html

 

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