Leadership for a sustainable environment

An increasing concern about climate change and its deleterious impacts was proven to be a deciding factor in how the public voted in this year’s Federal Election.

And so it should; a recent research report released by the University of London revealed that 34 per cent of large Australian organisations will miss their 2050 net-zero targets.

When it comes to environmental sustainability and action on climate change, the attitudes and behaviours of our leaders matter very much indeed, especially our business leaders.

The actions leaders take will have a direct impact on how others behave and the steps they will take towards securing a sustainable future for the country.

So, this isn’t just about political leaders.

I co-authored some research recently published in the journal Industrial Marketing Management, which showed that, in manufacturing firms, the leadership style and attitudes of CEOs and leadership teams directly correlates with whether those organisations take steps to innovate in environmental sustainability practices – whether through radical change such as carbon capture, incremental change such as reducing chemical byproducts, or a mix of both.

Our research findings also challenge previous research which assumes sustainability practices involve higher costs for firms and therefore lower profitability.

We found, in fact, environmental sustainability practices improve manufacturers’ production cost efficiency.

Another recent research report by the same team also found that brand image was boosted among businesses that took steps in environmental sustainability practices.

It is great to see innovation is being targeted to improve environmental sustainability.

Such practices are becoming a key objective of forward-looking companies, including some large manufacturing companies such as Volvo and Nestlé Nespresso, previously known for damaging the environment.

In these instances, it is the leadership styles, and attitudes of the leaders at the top towards environmental sustainability, which have created the conditions that potentially amplify the positive effect of innovation on sustainability.

And by setting common values around sustainability in their own organisation, they will influence not only their own staff, but partners and other organisations in their sector who may have been ‘on the fence’ when it comes to sustainability.

It’s about setting an example and demonstrating that environmental sustainability is not only possible, but delivers significant benefits and is good business.

It’s not just the leaders of manufacturing industries who can set those values around environmentalism and bring about innovation and positive change; it applies to all leaders.

As leaders of what are effectively very large businesses, university Vice-Chancellors and their senior leadership teams play an equally important role in driving innovation in environmental sustainability, and their influence is huge.

Their attitudes and values towards this crucial issue cascade not only to their staff but to their students – the leaders of the future – and to their partners and many communities.

Innovation and sustainability are becoming a priority for students, who want to understand and make positive contributions. So, university leaders can set the stage for this to happen by taking positive steps through their own behaviours.

It’s good to see universities across the country taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint – and the impact this is having on their communities.

My own university, La Trobe, has set an ambitious target to become carbon neutral by 2029 and recently announced that two of our regional campuses in Shepparton and Mildura have already reached their net zero status, with our campuses in Bendigo and Albury-Wodonga likely to follow suit later this year.

Despite the financial challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the University has remained resolutely committed to its $75 million investment in becoming net zero.

The leadership team knows it will pay off, not only financially but also because it will ensure security, reliability and cost-certainty of supply.  A range of significant innovation projects include the La Trobe Energy Analytics Platform (LEAP) – an energy analysis platform that monitors consumption patterns ensuring we can reduce energy consumption across our campuses – and the electrification of our campus in Bendigo.

The importance of sustainability is also a priority in many courses, which is a very positive signal my university sending to its students and partners.

By setting a positive example through their attitudes and actions towards environmental sustainability innovation, leaders from across all sectors and sizes of business can bring about real change and make a vital contribution towards a sustainable Australia for future generations and our prosperity.

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Media contact - Courtney Carthy, c.carthy-oneill@latrobe.edu.au, +61 433 208 187