During data collection for my PhD project on organisations that integrate environmentally beneficial outcomes into their practices, I came to know a wide range of people. Some people had unhappy childhoods, struggled with substance abuse, or experienced long-term unemployment. Others were idealistic university graduates wanting to make a difference in the world or retirees looking for something useful to do with their time. Some were volunteers, some were paid, and others were attending under coercion of government programs. These diverse groups were brought together to undertake tasks that earn an income and benefit the environment. However, these tasks were not organised by environmental activists but by businesses who were committed to increasing environmental and social wellbeing. These organisations, which I call “hybrid organisations”, were established by entrepreneurs who want the world to be different. The organisations bend around the competitive, profit driven system to return people-care and Earth-care into business practice.
Unfortunately in most other modern businesses, saving the environment can be presented in a way that is similar to having a hobby. People with discretionary buying power can choose to purchase more energy efficient appliances or holiday in an eco-lodge. Movements to save areas of natural significance or endangered species are largely undertaken as voluntary activities around paid work and other life commitments. Like a social club, it is likely that the only funds these movements have are donations which the volunteers solicit. Volunteers struggle to acquire skills in understanding legislation, writing media releases and getting access to scientific data to stop environmental threats. Meanwhile, those who exploit nature for profit have the advantages of being paid for their efforts and working in teams of experienced professionals. I have seen this biased power dynamic repeated across the world as ordinary people struggle against logging, coal mines, and oil pipelines, with never enough time to celebrate a victory before another challenge comes along.
This dynamic not only disadvantages our planet’s wellbeing, it wears out the resources both psychological and material of the environmental defenders. It also creates barriers for those who stand to lose the most from the environmental crisis—people whose incomes don’t stretch to solar panels, who didn’t have access to education to critique the sale pitches of developers, or who don’t have work that enables time off to attend rallies or political meetings. Many who are vulnerable to experiencing environmental injustice are often disempowered and missing from environmental movements.
The models developed by the organisations in my study create a new dynamic where protecting the environment is part of an average workday. While still only used by a minority of businesses, having a hybrid business model provides a variety of advantages. As well as economic and social support to the environmentalists involved, the self-efficacy and esteem of all participants was improved. For example, participants with low incomes often had small ecological footprints, but did not recognise their own achievement or feel proud of their accomplishment until they became involved in a hybrid organisation where they met environmentalists who valued lifestyles that minimise natural resource use. The organisations brought people together who had complementary skills to achieve projects that were then lauded by their communities and in news articles. Those who had developed skills through education and work opportunities shared their knowledge with those who had not had these opportunities. As well as being able to access educational opportunities, involvement in the organisations provided personal health and social benefits that motivated people to become involved in tasks that happened to also benefit the environment. There was no requirement to convert people to believe in ideas like anthropogenic climate change before they started to contribute to improving environmental wellbeing, although once involved people were more likely to come to appreciate the importance of protecting the environment.
When business models include activities that enhance environmental benefits it does not detract from the wellbeing of people, rather people’s wellbeing is enhanced. When business integrates environmental wellbeing into their practices, they become environmental allies not enemies. To achieve ecological and environmental justice, environmental stewards from across the socio-economic spectrum are required. The hybrid organisation provides a model to help achieve this.
Sylvia Ramsay is a PhD candidate at Griffith University in South East Queensland – Australia. She lives with her partner and their dog Ruby. She is currently embroiled in ongoing skirmishes with the free range chickens over control of the vegetable garden.