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How to Use Collective Strength to Green Your Workplace


Gareth Lowe is a Regional Officer with Unite the Union, a Partnership supporting member, and the Environment Lead Officer for the South West region. Son of an conservation educator, Gareth lives in Glastonbury, works in Bristol, and when not working can be found walking, birdwatching, and partaking in other outdoor activities. In the blog below he outlines how employees can work together to ensure their workplace undertakes concrete environmental action. 

Are you passionate about environmental change in your workplace, but don’t know where to start? Whether it’s looking transparently at your organisation’s supply chain, or recycling more, greening employment doesn’t have to be something reserved for employers, but an activity employees can play a role in, too. Here’s how.

The chances are you care about the environment. Given a straight choice between two options, you’re more likely to choose the greener one. We know that simply making changes to personal habits could be a drop in the ocean when compared to our environmental impact at work. So how do we go about affecting change in this important area?

21st Century employment 

Employers are increasingly aware of their impact on the environment. Whether it’s the costs of emissions, or the publicity associated with the green agenda, there are ever greater incentives to engage on this issue. Increasingly employers are hiring “sustainability directors”, alongside setting up “staff forums”- employee consultation bodies intended to give workers a voice.

Many of us fear our bosses are only really interested in the bottom line. Put simply, we want to work for employers with genuine concerns, rather than those simply invested in “greenwashing”. Staff forums usually have limited powers. A recognised Trade Union offers far beyond what’s available via these employee consultation groups.

Where trade unions fit in

All you need is a petition with over 50% of the affected workers signatures, requesting trade union recognition. This isn’t something you need to ask the employer for, cap in hand. Faced with such a petition, an employer may decide to voluntarily enter into discussions. Should they decide not to, a statutory process is then available to force their hand.

Now, thanks in part to Unite’s relationship with Bristol Green Capital Partnership’s Climate Leaders group, we have identified several organisations who are going further still. These progressive employers work in partnership with their employees. Within a handful of Bristol-based organisations, we’re now on the verge of signing historic “environment agreements”.

Empowering Green Champions

Legally, green reps have no statutory rights. By signing these agreements, employers enshrine the rights of green reps, bringing them up to the same status afforded to health & safety reps by law. These rights include paid time off for training.

Environment agreements also give representatives a seat and a vote on any sustainability boards. By ensuring workers representatives are at the table and empowered, we can best call out greenwashing and hold employers to account.

March 1st is the latest key date in Unite’s undertaking to provide the most ambitious green training programme for workers the South West has seen to date. Around 20 workers from all walks of life will attend a 3-day bespoke programme on this agenda. Attendees will leave the programme equipped with the tools to affect change at work.

Where next?

Inspired? Unite members keen to engage can contact me for practical tips, organisational support, or local contact info. There are lots of online resources available, including Unite’s own dedicated microsite, updated regularly. The TUC’s Go Green At Work” guide, now something of a classic, is a 100 page guide full of practical hints and tips, including practical areas for engagement.

Bristol’s City Council have set laudable goals of becoming carbon neutral and climate resilient by 2030, an ambitious timescale. If we are to meet this target, we all need to pull together. The Bristol Climate Ask encourages all organisations based in the city to declare an ambition to match the council’s goals.

Let’s not leave this important business in the hands of owners, CEOs, and Sustainability Directors. Let’s empower the many, not the few, to lead the way into our brighter, greener, future. The alternative is unthinkable.

Unite the Union is one of the two largest trade unions in the UK and Ireland, representing over a million workers from all walks of life. Unite is the union for the 21st century, meeting the greatest challenges facing working people today.

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