Such is the nature of the sustainability profession that environmental and energy managers often find their jobs specs changing just as quickly as the businesses that employ them.
What might have started as a role to help a business save some money on their energy bills might now comprise everything from complete control of energy procurement to ensuring the supply chain is as sustainable as possible. It’s a continually evolving role that increasingly requires more and more skills.
Tim Balcon, chief executive at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, spoke to Clean Energy News about the evolution of the sustainability profession, the skills now required to fulfil that role, and the direction of travel for the industry.
How do you feel the role of environmental or energy manager has developed in recent years?
We did a roadshow two years ago, and we just asked our members what they did and how they found the professional body. There was a number of things that were really clear.
The elephant in the room at the time was the word sustainability. We asked a very simple question that was ‘do you do sustainability? Is this a different profession?’ and it was overwhelming. Whereas people started in environmental management, as they’d progressed through it had become more of a sustainability role and actually become less environmental management the higher up they’d gone. But environmental management was still something they had to be held accountable for, albeit they might manage a team of people.
What you ended up with is a number of facets. You had an evolving environmental management role, you had a broad awareness of businesses about how to embrace that management role at more senior levels, and you had specialisms coming in from various ends in something new.
There was also a large degree of frustration about what environmental managers could see as opportunities but couldn’t get their business to engage with, because very often it was seen as a risk mitigation exercise.
We’ve now moved away from a hierarchy membership to one that people can go up in if that’s their choice or they can just join in at a level if that reflects their stance. So we’ve actually got quite a good solution now. Ostensibly it just reflects the skill sets that businesses and organisations are asking for now.
How have you seen that skill set change and how will it continue to evolve?
It’s all about engaging the business at whatever level. Our members said they thought they were change agents. They were trying to change – if it’s the business model or even just the mindset of the business – and in order to do that you can’t just go with a single issue as environmental management. It’s learning the skills to engaging with business and right through to the CEO if that’s the person you’ve got to get to, to the people below you or even the stakeholders and customers. In actual fact the skills are the softer ones, not so much the technical skills and that’s where we’ve developed them.
If there’s one key area the sustainable profession has to understand, what’s it going to be?
It’s about business value, speaking the right language. Speaking the language of environmental management will not engage the business unless it’s absolutely, altruistically focused in that area. Businesses are driven by money and profit and organisations are driven by purpose generally speaking. It’s having the skills to engage them, and it’s a skill set that every profession needs in reality, but what we’ve done in the membership is actually driven in those skill sets. If you’ve employed an environmental manager, what you’re getting as an employer is a very well rounded person that understands how to communicate within the business in the right context.
What’s driving the engagement with sustainability?
I don’t think there’s a single driver, I think there’s a number of them. There are a small number of big businesses who are doing sustainability because they absolutely get that the world is going to be a different place, and therefore it’s a very simple business decision which says our business model has to fit a changing world, and the current one is not going to work.
How is current government policy affecting the roles of environmental managers?
I don’t think it’s making it harder or easier, I think it’s making it uncertain. The drivers for sustainability have got to come from how your organisation or business fits in the world that we live in. If you understand sustainability properly you understand the social imperatives of running your business really ought to be as strong as your financial imperatives. To rely on government to give you a sustainability answer, you’ll nearly always get the wrong one because it will come from a legislative viewpoint. The answer again lies in the leadership at the top – do it because it’s right for what you want to do and not because government is there.
Where government is making it hard is the uncertainty and investment in new technologies. Those investments are going to create the breakthroughs of the sustainability objective, which is being net profit or neutral to the planet. If government is making it harder to make those investments, then it just makes the task harder to do. It shouldn’t stop you from doing it.
And how do you see environmental management evolving in general?
What we’re now seeing is environmental management broadening to such a degree that it’s a bit like engineering. There are different kinds of engineers – civil engineers, social engineers – and we’re probably seeing environmental management broaden out in that way. Two areas that are coming out at the moment are resource management, and the other is energy management. If we can make a big impact on the energy use and how we use the resource then actually we’re a long way toward a sustainable outcome.