Holding Complexity in Sustainability

How can we manage the complexities of eco anxiety and a conflicting, uncertain world towards productive climate action?

Holding Complexity in Sustainability  

Living daily on this planet, particularly in Western countries, we are all faced with the reality of our disproportionate contribution to the climate crisis. We know that we have a responsibility to do something – but what? With so many conflicting and changing sustainability narratives, it can be difficult to know the right thing to do when faced with complex and complicated advice. How can you know that the information you’re receiving is accurate, timely, and the best option for you and  the wider world around us?  

We are in a time of climate anxiety, with so many apparent ‘quick fixes’ that make us feel good but turn out to do more harm than good. The fear of accidentally causing more harm can lead us to become frozen by indecision, stuck with old sustainability policies and practices and no real shift in our mindsets. It’s scary to look carefully at our climate impact, particularly when we know that everything we do necessarily impacts our environment and other people. Will we be judged by others for not knowing the newest advice? What if we can’t make the changes suggested to us because of issues like finances, staffing shortages, or accessibility? 

As an organisation working to help people change their behaviours around climate and nature, we’ve thought carefully about the nuance and complexity of sustainability conversations. We know that shame is not a good motivator and that the weight of eco-anxiety can take a heavy toll. In order to make collective change, we must be each other’s allies and cheerleaders. Our model of training, membership, and advice services all seek to meet every organisation where they’re at, without judgement, and work together to get you to the next step of your journey. We also don’t shy away from recognising the emotional impact that dealing with these issues can bring. We aim to create space for understanding and managing that emotional impact. 

Our staff have reflected on how they manage the complexity of sustainability conversations, as experts who have spent years working to help change mindsets and behaviours across small and large organisations. If we can carry the complexity of knowing our lives necessarily contribute to climate change, while still reducing our impact and protecting our land, we can find the hope that leads to action.  

Making Climate Science Accessible

Our climate is one of the few things that impacts all of us all of the time. Yet climate science is often siloed and separated from the general public, who receive advice and instructions without always knowing why and the costs and benefits of both action and inaction. As sustainability experts, we must be open to these questions and concerns from the general public and translate what we know into language that resonates with them.  

Phoebe Nicklin, our Policy and Engagement Officer, uses her background in community engagement to connect dense policy research with the people whose lives will be affected by it.

“It always comes back to the people for me. Who am I trying to make the world a better place for? I think about the people in my community, my friends and family, and future generations, and I’d like to make the world a better place for them. For me, when I get bogged down in details or disheartened at things not moving fast enough, I bring things back to that personal level. We like to say that by grounding it in the earth and bringing things back to basics the complexities become less scary.”

Connecting to people and their stories is crucial to maintaining hope for our future, and remembering that sustainability is interconnected with all our other social concerns. We believe that most people and organisations want to care about sustainability and the world around us. We are all living in the world, so why wouldn’t we? It is unfair to suggest that people don’t care about sustainability issues, when maybe they just don’t yet understand them. We’ve all experienced that feeling of embarrassment when we don’t know something we think we should. We aim to not make anyone feel that way, and we do that by creating ways for groups to engage in and understand climate science in the format that suits them. 

Our Sustainability Adviser, Camille Lovgreen, co-wrote a series of stories envisioning a Wales in 2051 where interconnecting societal problems had been considered in future planning.  

“Most people don’t know the language of sustainability, and I don’t blame them – it’s really jargony. I want instead to connect them to the day-to-day of what does this look like in practice, making it more tangible so it isn’t this theoretically abstract thing. Our Wales in 2051 stories were an example of connecting people to those tangible things, bringing in practices towards a better quality of life with more inclusion, more collaboration, and seeing how that can look in real life.”  

When we envision a better future for our communities, we may imagine access to nutritious food, great healthcare, and a thriving natural world. How do we get there from where we are now? The practical work to get us there can take different forms, and we must think about the ways people in all positions of society can come together to create change. If we think of sustainability as simply farming or cleaning rivers (although these are certainly crucial parts!), we neglect many of the human elements of this work that are blocking us from making progress.  

What is blocking us from making change? 

In a country suffering a cost-of-living crisis and still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not surprising that people are still focused on rebuilding and trying to regain lost ground, with less time to focus on sustainability. If people are struggling to meet their basic needs, how can they find the time and energy to take care of our world? In our roles as agents of change towards a better climate, we must recognise those who have been excluded from and forgotten in climate conversations. How can we claim to be looking after our planet without looking after those who are most marginalised within it?   

As businesses, on top of thinking about our carbon emissions and waste, our sustainability work requires reflection on the treatment of the people who work for us. As the Living Wage and Living Hours Wales accreditor, we have a team dedicated to improving fair work practices in Wales. Our Living Wage Programme Officer, Grace Robinson, meets with organisations at all different stages of their journey to support them in becoming a Living Wage or Living Hours employer.   

“I’ve always been someone who wants to do a job that helps people. When an organisation becomes Living Wage accredited, they obviously have to pay the real Living Wage as a minimum. So in order to accredit, lots of organisations will give their staff a pay rise to meet that minimum. I think that’s the biggest part where I see that we’re making an impact, changing people’s lives for the better.” 

Have you ever rushed into sustainability action, only to find that people don’t seem to want to engage with it? Especially within organisations, leaders can sometimes be out of touch with their staff, not knowing how to engage them with new sustainability practices. Instead of simply introducing new mandatory policies, we can dig a little deeper into understanding what our staff need. When our staff are paid well, feel respected, and trust us to support and nurture them, they are more likely to engage with new policies and practices.  

How do we effectively change hearts, minds, and actions? 

While most of us are aware of the climate crisis, we are all on different steps on our journey to understanding our sustainability responsibilities. Every individual and organisation has a different idea of the best steps for them. With different values, priorities and concerns, one path of action may be perfect for one organisation and impossible for another.  

If we meet these conversations with rigidity, assuming that we know what is best for an organisation or individual, we are bound to experience resistance and may even end up pushing them further away. 

Our new Sustainability Trainer, Chris Woodfield, is used to encouraging conversations with people on all steps of their journey, having started his career working within community activism.  

 “For me, it’s about framing what we’re doing. One tool I often use is called The Business Transformation Compass from Forum for the Future. It looks at what mindset we’re coming from, and looking to shift our thinking from a risk mitigation and zero harm mindset towards a do good and just and regenerative mindset focused on building capacity for justice and regeneration. This helps us look at the system as a whole to move beyond sustaining and maintaining to enabling life to flourish and thrive.”   

Conversations around changing attitudes and habits can be tricky and need to be handled with care. If we want to turn sustainability aims into actions, we need to recognise that a sense of control and agency to act for the things that we care about are far more powerful motivators than fear or shame.   

In our sustainability advice services and training courses, we think about the values and needs of each organisation and develop sustainability goals to match them. That’s where our membership programme becomes so useful. Learning from similar organisations across different sectors has helped our members discover appropriate sustainability goals for them, feel less alone on their sustainability journey, and practice peer accountability. 

Can the sustainability journey be made easier? 

In the past few years, our lives have all changed hugely, meaning our habits have changed, too. It can be difficult to focus our attention in a specific direction, which can result in our sustainability aims getting left behind. Even with the pressure on organisations to meet sustainability goals and a widespread awareness of climate issues, time-poor organisations may struggle to find the time to dedicate to meaningful sustainability work.  

Noticing this, we’ve adapted things like our membership offer to fit with the needs of our members, particularly when it comes to their time. Our large quarterly member events always bring in a great crowd, alongside our digital events that are held each month, but developing this programme has required a lot of listening and adaptation from our Membership Officer, Abi Hoare: 

“Members ask us for networking opportunities, and they are always so engaged at our in-person events. But there are always practical issues, from people’s availability to wider issues of transport infrastructure and budgets. With the shift to remote working, people are more spread out and structuring their lives around being online, so in-person events can be tricky. We balance our in-person sessions with online sessions, having taken accessibility concerns into consideration, but we’re always listening to ways we can expand and evolve our programme.” 

If your events are under-attended, it’s worth thinking beyond the idea that people don’t ‘want’ to engage, and questioning how these events might be inaccessible. This could be down to practical issues, such as the space used and the time chosen, as well as interconnected issues such as clear event marketing, pricing, and the return on investment for your attendees.  

Many organisations are struggling financially, particularly in the third sector. One question that comes up sometimes is why should we budget for sustainability? When budgets must be cut, it makes sense to ensure that this sustainability work is, in itself, sustainable for us. This is why we think carefully about our pricing structure, offering different tiers and kinds of support to meet each organisation’s needs and budget.  

Fiona Humphreys, our Finance Officer, has seen the organisation grow and evolve over three years. She has reflected a lot on the value sustainability training provides. 

“As climate science changes so rapidly, we need to ensure that we continue to develop alongside it. The paid services we offer factor in our team’s research into evolving climate science, and purchasing our training helps an organisation to remember the value and importance of climate consciousness. We put a value on our work because we believe it has worth – and doing so allows us to offer pro bono work where it’s most needed, while also ensuring that we can continue to provide a service that is both up to date and effective in helping our clients become more sustainable.” 

When we have conversations around the need for sustainability action, it’s important to remember the nuanced factors that affect people’s behaviour. Through our training, advice, fair work, and membership services, we work with organisations of all sizes to take the next step towards more sustainable ways of working. When we’re honest with ourselves about our progress and our pitfalls, we can begin the journey of deepening our positive impact on the planet. Even as experts, we all have a way to go, and we hope you’ll join us in navigating this complex journey.  

Ready to start your sustainability journey? Get in touch to hear about our membership, training programmes, and sustainability advice.

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