THE overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the environmental challenges facing us are immense - and failure to address that will be catastrophic.
Quite simply, the prospect of dangerous and irreversible climate change is now more real, has a greater level of scientific consensus and is more widely understood than before. The good news? We have it in our grasp to halt the damage – if we all act now.
Shifting to a low-carbon economy will present many opportunities for companies which can offer solutions both sustainable and commercially viable.
Our development at Eaga has been based upon engaging with our 4,000 employees to build a green collar workforce which is able and ready to understand and embrace all these opportunities.
In my view, the traditional notion of blue collar manual workers and office-based white collar staff is becoming outdated; not just in the emerging environmental protection and renewable energy sectors but across all market sectors.
Indeed, in a recent address to the CBI, Business Secretary John Hutton championed the growth of the green collar sector and encouraged industry to respond positively to its development.
Our green collar staff visit more than 1,000 homes a day, installing insulation, central heating and renewable technologies which can cut the average annual carbon emissions from a typical household by up to a tonne, and reduce fuel bills by more than £200 a year.
But even if your business is not directly involved in environmental concerns, the need to engage with your staff about both their own, and the company’s, green credentials is becoming vital.
Environmental issues need to be switched from the periphery of business operations to the core of activity – not only to show responsible corporate citizenship, but also to reduce costs and strengthen efficiencies across the board.
The Government has made it clear that businesses should give carbon emissions the same level of priority as profitability.
If you are part of a supply chain, measures you take to minimise your impact on the environment will also lose or win you orders, while retailers and service providers are also finding their own environmental credentials scrutinised like never before by an increasingly environmentally aware and discerning public.
This may simply be good housekeeping to meet obligations of corporate governance, but it also reflects the emergence of so-called triple bottom-line accounting, which has expanded traditional reporting frameworks to include environmental and social responsibility issues. Putting effective corporate governance into practice can also be difficult.
The first step must be to engage fully and openly with your most important stakeholders – your staff. Success and growth for any organisation is not possible without motivated staff who share the same values and ethos as the company they work for, and who feel their efforts make a genuine difference.
At Eaga, we have worked extremely hard to achieve this by remaining true to the principles of employee ownership which have served us so well over the years. Eaga became an entirely employee-owned Partnership in 2000, adopting a similar business model to the John Lewis Partnership.
In 2006 we restructured the Partnership to take account of recent acquisitions and to ensure everyone working for the organisation – whether for Eaga itself or for a company we had acquired - enjoyed the same Partner rights and responsibilities.
Last June Eaga floated on the London Stock Exchange, primarily to help build a platform for continuing and sustainable growth, and to provide the right access to capital so that we could diversify into new markets. We were, however, determined to take the ethos of Partnership into the plc environment.
So, at flotation we were able to offer a financial bonus to every Partner within the company; a move I believe engendered a real feeling of inclusiveness and equity among all our employees.
It is also crucial to us that more than 50% of the shares in Eaga are still in the hands of its employees, our Partners. Some 37% of these shares are held in trust on behalf of all Partners by the Eaga Partnership Trust, making it the largest single shareholder in the company.
As a co-owned business with a substantial employee shareholding, we refer to our employees as Partners, as each has a clear stake in the future of the business.
As with our customers and the communities in which we operate, we pride ourselves on treating our Partners with integrity, respect and enthusiasm. I have no doubt it is this commitment to our Partners which is helping us shape a “green collar workforce”, ready to understand, grasp and realise the opportunities that will present themselves through the ongoing development and growth of a low-carbon economy. Solutions that address environmental challenges must, however, be delivered in tandem with solutions that address social justice issues. For example, lowering the carbon footprint from the UK’s domestic housing stock can only succeed if all households, including the poorest and most vulnerable, can see the benefit.
Globally, we have already seen how the poorest and most vulnerable social groups are least equipped to cope with impacts of climate change. There is a real equity issue we must keep at the forefront of any discussion around environmental policy and its impacts. As I see it, a low-carbon economy must therefore be equitable, balanced and reflect the differing needs of all social groups – and a “green collar workforce” needs to be ready to do the same.