Business of change
Management Associate Professor Sara Walton believes there has been a seismic shift in eco-awareness, with changemakers showing it is possible for a business organisation to be more sustainable while still functioning as a viable economic entity.
The greening of New Zealand business: it’s a tale of gutsy innovation, environmental commitment, systemic disruption – and the inevitable chafing therein.
Associate Professor Sara Walton (Department of Management) knows a thing or two about that chafing. As director of the Master of Sustainable Business programme and co-director of He Kaupapa Hononga (Otago’s Climate Change Research Network), Walton’s overarching research interest is the role of business in sociotechnical transitions for climate change.
“I want to understand how we can have change for sustainability – and particularly the role of business in that change.”
“Building climate change into organisations has become a strategic necessity rather than a competitive advantage.”
Walton has been working on several projects that revolve around this phase of vital, sustainable transitioning: for Energy Cultures she looked at small-medium business entrepreneurs who were working towards a fossil-fuel-free transport industry; for the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) she’s researching climate readiness in the construction industry; and for Āmiomio Aotearoa (a transdisciplinary collaboration hosted by the University of Waikato) she’s looking at how we can best promote and advance waste-free products and services for a circular economy.
The common thread in much of Walton’s research is her focus on the doings of the ecopreneurs and the crucial role they play in adding necessary disruption to the system. These excellent disruptors muscled their way to the forefront of her thinking when she took on the Energy Cultures project several years ago.
“There wasn’t much research that looked at things from the perspective of the changemakers. I’ve been studying environmental entrepreneurs for a while now – they’re strongly motivated to change the system.”
That system knows its fossil fuel heyday is over. The recent seismic shift in eco-awareness is rupturing the status quo and fast, moving those early green adopters from business fringe to business mainstream.
“A few years ago, it was pretty novel if an organisation was measuring its carbon footprint and talking about it, but now it’s just business as usual,” says Walton. “Building climate change into organisations has become a strategic necessity rather than a competitive advantage. Businesses have to innovate and move beyond just measuring and managing that carbon.”
Those changemakers who are already innovating in the system are the ones Walton has her eye on. “I’ve been looking at entrepreneurs as actors in that system-level change to see what they’re doing. That bubbling of ideas will help legitimate change at that wider systems level. They’re helping to show in a business sense that you can actually become climate-change-ready and be more sustainable in your organisation and you can still function as a viable economic entity.”
This attitudinal shift will yield rich research pickings for Walton. “I think there’s a real tipping point happening around that. It’s the most exciting thing in the world of business and sustainability at the moment – and the next few years are going to be really interesting with regards to that.
“The Climate Change Commission’s recent advice to government is one of the most important policy documents we’ve had in this country in many years. We should soon see some urgency with policy level shifts.”
Until then, Walton will keep amplifying the voices of the business world’s eco-embracers. “Business is often dismissed as being stuck and the last thing that’s going to shift. I think we need to change how we think about that and keep business in the conversation around climate change. We also need to celebrate and support some of those companies that are really trying to do things differently.”
MBIE Endeavour Fund (Energy Behaviour of SMEs in New Zealand, Energy Cultures 2)
MBIE Endeavour Fund (Āmiomio Aotearoa: a circular economy for the well-being of New Zealand)
BRANZ (Get Ready! Preparing building and construction businesses for the transition to zero carbon)