14 July 2023
by Sarah Morgan

Sustainably active

Inhabiting a role with the remit of driving sustainability can be rewarding and challenging. Sarah Morgan finds out more about the skills required to become an advocate for transition within your industry.


Before tackling a subject such as sustainability, particularly with a view to action, it is important to understand what we mean by the often-loaded term ‘activism’.

Unsurprisingly, this word elicits different responses and carries negative or positive connotations depending on whom you speak to. Tessa Wernink, Founder of the Undercover Activist, has sought to reinvent this term, as she works closely with companies from the inside to help them become more sustainable.

She reflects, 'I am incredibly aware of the fact that it’s a loaded term.” Having lived in China and Hong Kong previously for 14 years, she says, 'Some people [are] proud calling themselves an activist, and for other people, it is life threatening, so I think that it is really important to say that there is no one definition of activism'.

She continues, 'A lot of people see activism as a protest or being against something and what we want to convey is that it’s not [always what you’re against]…It’s an active, instead of passive, approach to upkeeping values in a society and imagining what you would like to see.'

She also mentions there is a whole range of different types of activism, from shareholder activism, which is interpreted differently to ‘on the streets’ activism, and how you can use your role as an employee or as a corporation to action change.

Iain Ferguson FIMMM, Environmental Consultant and Founder of ILFEC, has worked in the packaging industry for over 25 years. He is direct in defining activism as, 'It’s finding the right solution. Being prepared to champion, which is very important, but it is being prepared to share the solution with anybody who needs it and do that openly and proactively.'

He expands, 'So every time we found a solution, we would go to a trade fair…and tell people we’ve done this. This is how we’ve done it and this is where you find that solution…Everybody has to move together…and move us all forward together.'

Lucy Crane, ESG and Sustainability Manager for Cornish Lithium, echoes this sentiment. She says, activism is 'probably proactively trying to bring about positive change. So, being that champion for highlighting environmental issues and holding stakeholders within the company to account as to what we are actually going to do about it. But I think for it to be productive, you’ve got to offer solutions'.

And finally for Lucy Smith, Ventures Lead at the Materials Processing Institute, 'It’s about proactively raising awareness at any point possible and pushing the boundaries…and thinking and trying to get people to think outside the box.'

Style and substance

To be a champion for change and find solutions to develop and deliver on sustainability goals within an organisation, all the contributors agreed on the power of effective communication with robust evidence to back you up.

In Smith’s new role at the Materials Processing Institute, she explores how innovation and intellectual property can be commercialised.

She says, 'Because I am quite passionate about it…I find it quite easy to communicate. What I’m doing as Ventures Lead means going out and communicating with investors, communicating with partners, obviously doing quite a bit of negotiation and persuasion…being able to communicate with a wide range of people is really important.'

She expands, '[It is] really important to make sure that we can link everything up and make sure that we know that we are not having an additional effect on other aspects of the environment', particularly regarding Life Cycle Assessment.

Crane also notes the advocacy and influencing elements of her role. 'You want to influence different people, whether internally or externally, but you need to have that solid technical understanding as well.' The key to good communication here, she says, is being informed.

In his current role, Ferguson cites, 'The skills that I think are used more…are probing for answers, probing claims and the information, [and] being able to communicate clearly to senior management. The things that we should be doing to get senior management buy-in – which I was successful in – is bringing other teams within the business along with me. So, good communication, good persuasion'.

Wernink says, 'One of my missions is to put employee activism as part of the business education programme…Employee activism can be a force for good.

'We are connecting a lot of the big international players who have resources on employee activism. We are trying to have this conversation in organisations...[so] they start inviting disagreement, and they start involving their younger employees and making sure that they are part of the decision making.” She is encouraging and expecting challenging conversations on this topic.

Empowering or emboldening

Wernink was initially uncomfortable with the phrase ‘empowering’. 'I think we should use the word embolden, rather than empower,” she mused. “I’m saying this specifically, because empower as a word to me is always insinuated that someone holds power and has to give it to someone else. I think the first thing is to give the sense that the employee understands that they have power or that they have influence.'

With the Undercover Activist, she is aiming at employees who, 'need to be emboldened and empowered and given the tools, I think, to change their companies…how can we use these entrepreneurial skills that I’ve seen around me in a positive way within businesses…there’s a lot of pressure on business to change, but I think the employees are usually quite loyal and really want to help their businesses move forward'.

Although she adds, 'But if you don’t have power, then you need to have different strategies to be heard. So, we talk about what are the current and existing employee voice mechanisms, and how can you understand what you stand for in relation to others, to create a more collective voice. And also look at what the system is that your business operates in…there’s a whole industry out there that has different needs, and there’s regulations and legislation. So, how can you connect what it is that you’re trying to change to both your colleagues as well as more of a systemic point of view.'

Ferguson is somewhat poetic about empowerment, he says, 'A friend of mine in the church used to say ‘I’m going to release you into your gifts’. I think that’s what it is. [If] you identify people’s gifts, you might stretch them. You try and release them into their gifts, into their talents, as much as you can within what the business needs, or what you perceive that the business [needs but] doesn’t realise'.

For Smith, when she thinks about empowerment, 'the first thing that comes to mind is leadership at the top level. Knowing the overall mission and vision of the company that you are working for, to support and achieve sustainability goals – whether those be social goals, whether those be environmental goals – but also having other people in the organisation who are passionate about it'.

She continues, 'I think in my industry because I’m working with researchers who are very data driven, detail focused, having the right data to back up your comments and your assumptions is important.” Again, she mentions the role of communication here.

Crane frames empowerment slightly differently again. She says, “So I think by providing value, basic training to everybody, we are looking to bolster the ESG requirements of contractors and consultants that we are working with as well. Very much, we want to encourage a culture where no comment is a stupid comment or a stupid question. If you see something that doesn’t feel great to you, or you see an area where we can make an improvement…then we want to have a culture where people feel comfortable saying that, so you don’t want to make people feel stupid for raising something…It’s really important that everybody feels that their opinion is valued.'

She continues, “And as new people join…you have to be really proactive about maintaining that culture as the company grows, introducing new people to it and what it means. So, it’s not easy, but it’s something that you have to be proactive about.'

Overcoming barriers

Wernink is looking at the big picture when she assesses the challenges. She says, 'The challenges are the same as change anywhere – if there’s a dominant worldview or a dominant culture, [it is] creating space for some movement in organisations…because I think we all know that change doesn’t happen overnight.'

In terms of company culture, she notes a discrepancy between what was previously perceived about how you behave in business and the kinds of conversations you can have, versus a desire now to talk about ‘purpose’ or ‘values’. She notes it is important to be 'trained on how to have these conversations or how to deal with it, and I think they definitely impact cultures and decisions of the company'.

Ferguson says if you want to change career or change your company, you need to be prepared to challenge everything. Your preconceptions, the system. But if you are going to challenge somebody…you need data'. It can be a 'hard slog to get the data to convince somebody to change something'.

He doesn’t underestimate the challenge of getting senior managers on board. 'It’s a constantly evolving picture. So, once you’ve got the buy in, which is great, you’ve got to maintain that by good communication, and regular updates and honesty in the challenge'.

Smith was forthright that climate sceptics are 'the main challenge…They’re still out there unfortunately'.

She also sees the economic challenges faced by businesses as being a longstanding barrier to change, particularly smaller businesses. As they weigh up the cost of change with the realities of staying afloat.

She is in a unique position of working with the Foundation Industries, who have historically acted within silos. She says in terms of tackling this, 'The Transforming Foundation Industries Challenge has done a very good job of that…They did a brilliant job of making sure that the different industries came together'. For example, 'the one project that we worked on was bringing steel and cement production together…to take a waste material from one industry and put it into another in a completely different way that had not been considered before…from a project management and sustainability point of view, everybody in the supply chain is there.'

She highlighted how the Materials Processing Institute provides 'a pathway to take the process from the lab all the way through to the mid-scale person in the Institute’s electric arc furnace, to then be able to put it into industrial scale'. She sees the importance of getting the main stakeholders together.

'It’s very much disrupting the supply chain. We’ve created a brand-new supply chain essentially. So, it is disruptive innovation, and because of that, you need to have every 
player there.'

Crane sees the challenge in priorities. 'I think sometimes the challenges come from conflicting priorities…it just comes down to communication, making sure that we’re all aware of big work programmes ahead of time so that things can be built in and plugged in…I think that’s where potential challenges arise is when different people have got different priorities and they’re all kind of competing.'

Be the change

Ferguson stressed, 'be honest and authentic' in your communication. While Smith was aware, 'We’re still in a consumerist society. So, we still have to consider the economic bottom line as well. I think leaders can push the boundaries'.

Crane says of the mining sector, 'I just really strongly believe that we need a new generation of people coming into the industry, who are perhaps thinking outside the box…ideally, slightly more diverse than was currently within the industry…And, at the moment, we’re not attracting that next generation in the way that we need to be doing it'.

Wernink concludes, 'I don’t believe in leaders, I believe in leadership…So that first conversation of finding allies, finding a team and growing that idea of ‘this is what we stand for’, is a really good start…You need to be radical from the root, what you stand for, to create change, but if you’re too radical, then the system spits you out and then you can’t change anything.'